December 5, 2011

A Tale of Two Friends: Marissa Vahlsing, JD ’11, and Ben Hoffman, JD ’11

Posted by Cara Solomon

This article was originally published in The Harvard Law Bulletin

It’s hard to remember now what she said.  But it was vintage Marissa—something others would not have thought, or had the courage to say.  She raised her hand in the first week of law school, and spoke her mind.

Ben and Marissa were among several students to staff the Clinic’s table during last year’s annual Clinical Fair.

Right away, Ben wanted to be her friend.  He flagged her down on the crosswalk after class.  He asked if she wanted to bat around some ideas.  And that was how Ben Hoffman and Marissa Vahlsing started Harvard Law School: side by side.

Three years later, they graduated the same way.

“The joke is that Ben has become more like Marissa, and Marissa has become more like Ben, and they’re starting to blur into the same person,” said Susan Farbstein ’04, associate clinical director of the Human Rights Program, a mentor and teacher to both.

This fall, along with the rest of the Class of 2011, Marissa and Ben have headed out into the world to make their way.  Specifically, they’re working in Peru, helping EarthRights International set up an office to support indigenous communities in the fight to protect their land.

When Marissa heard they had received funding for the project, she could not stop smiling.

“We were going anyway,” she said. “Now we’ll have the money to eat.”

**********

In high school, Marissa wanted to be a potter.  Or maybe a writer.  Then one day, talking to an activist on a banana plantation in Costa Rica, she asked what he needed most.

A lawyer, he said.

Marissa was not the most conventional candidate for the profession.  Waiting to interview for the prestigious Truman Scholarship, a leadership award that would help her pay for studies at HLS, she walked the hallway in bare feet, a peacock feather she found in India tucked into her pocket for luck.

“Everyone else thought, This girl, she’s never going to win,” Marissa said.

Then, in a surprise to no one who knew her, she did.

***************

When Ben graduated high school, he delivered the valedictory speech entirely in rhyme.

It was about tolerance and kindness and making the world a better place; in prose it would have been a very good speech.  But the rhyme made it Ben.  It became the stuff of lore among his friends at HLS.

Ben is known for his silly streak; he’s the kind of man who will moonwalk with the 5-year-old daughter of a professor in the halls of HLS.  But as the grandson of labor leaders and Holocaust survivors, he has always focused his mind on how to help.

“If I can make my family proud, I know I’ve done something right,” he said.

*************

Right from the start, Ben and Marissa made HRP their home.  She traveled to Bolivia to work with indigenous communities on an Alien Tort Statute case.  He wrote amicus curiae briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court about corporate liability for human rights violations in Sudan.

Given their common interests, they could have competed.  But early on, Ben and Marissa made the decision to work together.  They bounced ideas off each other, borrowed styles from each other, and three years later, emerged better lawyers for it.

Marissa took on some of Ben’s level-headed calculation.  Ben took on some of Marissa’s emotional intensity.  Friends admired the way they worked—the discipline, the creativity, the vision.

“They’re the Siegfried and Roy of human rights law,” said Stephen Cha-Kim ’11.

The dream for Ben and Marissa is that one day they’ll start a nonprofit organization together.  Their mentor, Tyler Giannini, clinical director of HRP, co-founded EarthRights International with a woman he sat beside in Torts class.

“If you’re going to do community lawyering, friendships like Ben and Marissa have are essential to the work,” Giannini said.  “That support system is critical.”

Ben and Marissa on a recent trip into the Amazon to consult with indigenous leaders.

This year in Peru, Marissa and Ben will face a sharp learning curve. Ben will have to cope with people who care less than he does.  Marissa will have to keep her emotions in check.  There are so many unknowns.

But after three years, it’s become habit now, one friend looking after the other.  No matter what happens, they always do.

Postscript: Ben and Marissa moved to Peru in September and are settling into their jobs as Legal Fellows with EarthRights International.  Both are writing for the organization’s blog: click here for Ben’s posts and here for Marissa’s posts.  And here are some pictures from their early days setting up the office in Peru.

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