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January 18, 2022

Human Rights Alumni Provide Career Advice to Current Clinical Students

Special session offers reassurance and guidance to 3Ls whose law school experience was impacted by the pandemic

By Sarah Foote

COVID-19 reshaped the Class of 2022’s time at Harvard Law School. For students planning careers in human rights, the pandemic jettisoned international summer internships, J-term placements, and opportunities to travel and study abroad. Professor Susan Farbstein wanted to respond to this sense of loss in her advanced clinical seminar and to connect her current 3Ls to networks and mentors that can support them on their paths—particularly as they launch careers in unprecedented circumstances.

So at the end of the fall term, Farbstein convened a Zoom session with 13 clinical alumni, spanning the Classes of 2009 through 2020, and advanced 3Ls in the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC). Over two hours that felt like both a family reunion and a high-level panel, alumni shared lessons learned from their often-circuitous career paths. They also offered sage advice about the importance of working for good leaders, practicing self-care, and the challenges and fulfillment they’ve found tackling human rights issues around the world.

The Clinic As A Launching Pad and Ongoing Source of Support
Many alumni drew a connection between their time as students in the International Human Rights Clinic and their ability to enter the human rights field.

For Yonina Alexander, JD ‘12, Regional Program Director at Partners for Justice, her first position out of law school was a direct outgrowth of her projects and training in the Clinic. “My first job was with the Center for Justice & Accountability. I went there to work on Alien Tort Statute (ATS) litigation and Torture Victim Protection Act cases, and that was directly because I’d been working on ATS litigation in the Clinic. I loved it and wanted to continue,” she said.

Jason Gelbort, JD ‘13, Founder of Upland Advisors, also drew “a direct thread between a moment at the Clinic and everything I’ve done since graduating.” As a student, he participated in a clinical fact-finding trip to the Thai-Burma border. “After spending a week in a refugee camp talking to people about their horrible experiences, it was definitely very formative and made me decide this was a situation I wanted to focus on. After that trip, I knew I wanted to work in that field. It was directly tied to my experience at the Clinic,” Gelbort said.

Other alumni noted that the Clinic had been instrumental to their career transitions, and recounted reaching out to former clinical supervisors to talk through their options and decision-making process when moving between jobs later on in their careers.

Good Mentors and Workplace Culture Make All the Difference

The alumni also emphasized the importance of working with and for people who will be good colleagues and foster a healthy workplace environment. “When interviewing for jobs, think about who you are going to work for and how you are going to be treated,” advised Jillian Rafferty, JD ’20, Managing Editor at the International Review of the Red Cross. “Try to figure out what works for you. The people that are around you at work make a really big difference in your ability to find your work sustainable—not just fulfilling in the tasks or the mission of the job, but in your ability to be content.”

New human rights practitioners should challenge themselves to find mentors and to consider the type and quality of supervision they prefer, advised Ben Hoffman, JD ‘11, a Supervising Attorney at EarthRights International. “When you’re interviewing it’s important to ask about supervision—especially now with so much remote work. You’re not necessarily going to be infrequent meetings with your supervisor or even going to be in the same office or location as your supervisor. It’s important to do some self-reflection and figure out how important it is to you when interviewing and ask about this,” Hoffman said.

Matt Wells, JD ‘09, Deputy Director of Crisis Response at Amnesty International, noted that in his experience, “You need to be prepared to construct some of that workplace culture [you want] for yourself. It can come from finding the right boss, which has been a very intentional part of how I’ve chosen career transitions at this stage.”

Identity, Resilience, and Self-Care

Many alumni spoke candidly about experiencing burnout and described adjustments they have made to regain a sense of balance. The lesson: while it can be validating to find fulfillment in the work, avoid allowing your job to become your identity.

Yonina Alexander told current students that, “A big part of it for me was decoupling my identity as a human rights lawyer from the be-all-end-all of who I am. When I had that mentality, that was all I had room for in my life and all other things fell by the wayside.” It took “a shift in the way I thought about myself—realizing that you’re a human being, you’re not just the things you produce in the workplace” that allowed her to regain balance. She advised, “Make sure you find your identity [beyond your job] as that helps with sustainability in this work.”

Matt Wells echoed this sentiment, noting the importance of putting ego aside. At the start of his career, he recalled the pressure to be “wildly productive. That was not motivated by doing the work in the best or most impactful way, but it was about something internal in me that I needed to purge over time.” Since becoming a parent, he is more intentional in carving out and protecting space for himself. “Unless there is something truly urgent with work, it’s going to wait. The fight is going to continue tomorrow, and that’s absolutely fine. It obviously doesn’t need to be kids, but find what it is that gives you that space and energy outside of work and keep it sacred. Don’t let people plow into it.”

Claret Vargas, JD ‘10, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Justice and Accountability, recalled a law school internship at a Latin American human rights organization. “They were very careful about actually kicking you out of the office. At five, you have to go, you have to stop work. That was the first time for me that I started learning to put a hard stop at my workday. Yes, there are days when you will still work until 1 am because something is due the next day. But that can’t be the habit.”

She also noted that this approach makes careers in human rights more sustainable. “Being okay and happy on a personal level is actually what’s going to carry you through the hardest parts of our job,” she explained. “Advocating for human rights is emotionally difficult because you are witnessing injustice all the time, and you are talking to people who have suffered abuses. It’s been very healthy for me to internalize self-care as a necessity for good practice.”

Transitioning from Law Firms to Human Rights

Several of the alumni began their careers in private practice and offered invaluable insights about making the transition from law firms to human rights organizations. 

Esti Tambay, JD ‘10, Senior Counsel at the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch, enjoyed her time at a large law firm but knew that she wanted to pivot back to human rights. She advised current students starting out in big law, “Reflect on what you want deep down and what matters to you personally. Do pro bono work to show your ongoing commitment to human rights, and make sure to keep up with the human rights network. Take a risk and be willing to be flexible to get your foot in the human rights door.”

When Melissa Shube, JD ‘15, Litigation Counsel at the Lawyering Project, was at her firm, she sought, “to both be present at the job and have a laser focus on where I wanted to be [after], so you’re not only building relationships but setting yourself up to transition when the time comes.”

Like Tambay, she suggested students “try and work with people at your firm who have similar interests as you—people who are public interest-minded—as they can be good mentors.”

Similarly, Claret Vargas advised, “Keep your eye on the ecosystem of human rights work that matters to you. Continue to ask yourself: What are the skills I need? How do I keep in touch with movement? This is very helpful in finding your dream job.”

Poppy Alexander, JD ‘12, a partner at Constantine Cannon’s whistleblower practice, wasn’t looking to leave her law firm when an opportunity presented itself. “I thought I was taking a big risk to transition from a well-established and well-regarded civil rights firm to a lesser-known one in a practice area I didn’t know at all. But it was fun to go to a place that was building its reputation and to be a part of that. The lesson is to be open to the possibilities that may fall in your lap that you’re not looking for at all. Treat them seriously even if it seems like a crazy veering off the path you have in your head. Be open to them.”

Careers Are Long

Many alumni noted that there can be a huge amount of pressure and expectation wrapped up in your first job out of law school—but careers are long, and it’s always possible to make a shift.

Claret Vargas spoke about the experience of not landing her dream job immediately upon graduation. “My approach was to think about the kind of skills that I wanted to develop in order to do a lateral shift to human rights when the time arose.” Looking back now, she is grateful for her experiences at different organizations. “One of the great things about not getting my dream job at the beginning is that I got to see multiple ways of doing human rights advocacy and also interrogating the kind of impact I was having,” she explained.

Chelsea Sharon, JD ’11 an appellate attorney at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, advised students to think strategically about how to use the different phases of their life and career. “In retrospect, I might have thought a little bit more about how best to use the time between law school and when I had a child, to think about what things I would like to do then that would be much harder once I had a child.” She emphasized, “I don’t like to advise people to overly prescribe your five-year plan, but just generally to think about what kinds of things you might want to experience now, earlier in your career, if you’re wanting to have a family down a road.”

Elisa Quiroz, JD ‘19, a Program Officer at the International Federation for Human Rights, shared how, “Especially in your first few years out, there’s this vibe in public interest law and international law that you have to take all the opportunities and move and sacrifice everything else.” She urged students to resist this narrative. “Even if it might not feel that way, you can have minimum requirements of what you want to do or where you want to be. It might make your search more challenging. But just because you don’t have that many years of experience, you don’t have to follow a certain career path. You have a lot of skills and you’ll realize that you can learn in a lot of different ways. Go for it.”

When Yonina Alexander burned out on litigation, she initially couldn’t figure out what she wanted to do because “I felt imprisoned in this paradigm litigation: that the only marketable skill I have is to be a civil litigator and take a good deposition.” But walking away from that job “gave me a lot of confidence in my abilities and that things are going to work out. That sounds wishy-washy, but it’s true. You have set yourselves up really well.”

Alexander continued, “There’s a lot of anxiety—I felt it when I graduated—that you have to be on a certain path and do certain things, and if you don’t achieve those you’ll be a failure and amount to nothing. When I quit with nothing planned, and still things worked out, it was a really big shifting moment for me.” She emphasized that “there is so much good work that you can be doing in so many capacities. And having standards for yourself about where you want to be and what you want to be doing, you’ll still end up doing really interesting work.”

The 3L Perspective

Current 3Ls found the discussion especially valuable given that so much of their time at law school, including interactions with peers, professors, and project-related work, was conducted virtually.

For Stanislaw Krawiecki, JD ’22, learning about the variety of paths alumni have taken, and the career shifts they have made, reoriented his perspective. He now feels better equipped to “maintain an open mind and concentrate on what we can learn from the current opportunity as opposed to how it limits us going forward—because it does not.”

The conversation also offered reassurance because he was able to hear firsthand “from alumni who crafted their own path and then found themselves with unexpected opportunities for human rights work. This helps us trust our own instincts in choosing our next career step, staying true to your own ideas, aims, and values.”

Erika Holmberg, JD ’22, echoed this sentiment. “It was so reassuring and exciting to hear about the ways in which alums have been able to lean on their former peers and mentors from the Clinic for support and advice throughout the twists and turns of their human rights careers,” she said. “As someone who hopes to work on a challenging, relatively niche human rights issue in the future—the North Korea human rights crisis—I really appreciate how the Clinic can continue to be such a personally and professionally valuable network even after we graduate.”

Anoush Baghdassarian, JD ’22, described the panel as “a highlight of the fall semester” and “a beautiful community event bringing together generations of IHRC students.” For her, “the most meaningful part of the event was seeing how connected everyone stayed with the Clinic and one another, regardless of how many years out of HLS they were. I am looking forward to following that same path!”

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