Alumni Spotlight: Aminta Ossom ’09, Crowley Fellow in International Human Rights, Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School
April 25, 2014 | 2 Comments
Aminta Ossom ’09 is the Crowley Fellow in International Human Rights at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School. With an ongoing interest in international issues as a first generation American, Ossom was inspired to pursue a career in human rights after taking an undergraduate course in religion and foreign policy that profiled faith-based human rights campaigns. She entered law school knowing that she wanted to work in the public interest but was torn between pursuing a career in international human rights or domestic civil rights law.
After completing internships working on children’s rights issues with the International Justice Mission and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, Ossom committed to a career in international human rights work. She enrolled in the Harvard International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), conducting research and advocacy for its West Africa projects as a student. Her positive experience with the IHRC led her to pursue a Frank Knox Memorial Traveling Fellowship in London, where she studied African politics for a year while volunteering at Amnesty International. Her experience there was so fulfilling that she applied for and received a Satter Fellowship to return to the organization as a legal fellow the following summer.
Ossom’s Satter Fellowship allowed her to research the national justice systems of Sierra Leone and Ghana. Living and working in both countries, she interviewed government officials and local legal experts to outline the domestic legal framework for trying crimes under international law in their national courts. Amnesty International uses the reports Ossom drafted as part of its national and international advocacy.
Ossom’s experience at Amnesty International led to her current position at the Leitner Center, where she spends most of her time organizing research and logistics for an overseas documentation project, meeting with students, and coordinating a speaker series on international human rights law. Ossom takes pleasure in working directly with students and connecting them to other professionals that work in human rights law. She also appreciates that her job allows her to travel abroad frequently; she enjoys adjusting to other cultures and environments and loves learning how the people in other countries live their lives.
Ossom recently had the opportunity to teach a seminar on disability rights for a select group of students preparing to research access to education for people with disabilities in Rwanda. This experience was particularly rewarding because it allowed her to combine her passion for student mentoring with her desire to work directly with communities suffering from human rights abuses and amplify their voice.
Ossom also advises law students to think of each job as a learning experience and to view their career development as a lifelong journey. Ossom emphasizes that students today will likely take many different jobs in a variety of practice areas over the course of their careers, and may not find the job that is the right fit for them immediately after law school. She also advises that students take advantage of any opportunities to reach out to people who work in their interest areas. For example, students should go to speaker events or lunch talks given by professionals who work in their field of interest and shouldn’t hesitate to approach the speaker afterwards to make connections and learn more about their work. In fact, Ossom recommends that you email interesting speakers after the event both to thank them for speaking and to stay abreast of relevant opportunities as you begin your career.
Ossom notes that without significant field experience, entry-level positions or opportunities for recent graduates in international law are limited. Participation in clinics and extracurricular activities, such as the Human Rights Journal, will go a long way in strengthening your resume for potential employers after law school. Finally, Ossom reminds students that they should pursue work that they truly want to do, and not to hesitate to give interesting opportunities a try.
Alumni spotlight written by OPIA Fellow Kim Schroer
Alumni Spotlight: Michael Bahar ’02 – General Counsel to the Minority Staff of the House Select Committee on Intelligence
February 20, 2014 | 4 Comments
Working as the General Counsel to the Minority Staff of the House Select Committee on Intelligence gives Michael Bahar ’02 the opportunity to contribute to our country’s national security mission on a daily basis. As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, Bahar knew he wanted to pursue a career in public service from an early age.
When Bahar first arrived at HLS in 1999, he explored a variety of opportunities available to students. He enrolled in the Prisoners Legal Assistance Project, became involved in the Ethics Law and Biotechnology Society (ELAB), directed the Parody, and served as a Teaching Fellow at Harvard College. Shortly after 9/11, during Bahar’s 3L year, security law issues rose to the top of the national agenda. Bahar chose national security law as a path to public service. “I was always interested in military service,” he says. “With events at the time, national security work seemed like the most tangible way to directly serve the public.”
Before he graduated from HLS, Bahar was commissioned into the United States Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG). He began basic training the morning after he sat for the New York State bar exam. While waiting for his Active Duty service to begin, Bahar was a Litigation Associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, & Garrison LLP in NY City for ten months. His first JAG Corps post was as a criminal prosecutor in Jacksonville, Florida. Bahar then deployed to the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa as the Navy lawyer for the USS Nassau Strike Group, where he advised on the law of naval operations and conducted anti-piracy operations. Bahar was later stationed twice at the Pentagon, first serving as Aide to the Deputy Judge Advocate General of the Navy and then as Deputy Legal Counsel to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, both times working administrative law issues. He was then stationed in Virginia Beach with Naval Special Warfare Development Group, during which time he found himself jumping out of planes and advising on cutting edge legal issues involving the use of force.
Bahar’s time with the SEALs was cut short by a call to work at the White House. Between 2010 and 2012, Bahar served as Deputy Legal Advisor to the White House’s National Security Staff. Bahar advised President Obama’s National Security team on a broad array of issues, including foreign relations law, presidential emergency and war powers, intelligence law, information safeguarding and security, ethics, and congressional oversight. He weighed in on the executive response to some of the most pressing events in recent years, including the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Dealing with such a wide range of issues gave Bahar broad expertise.
Less than two weeks after leaving the White House, Bahar deployed to Afghanistan. There, he advised a Special Operations Task Force, working closely with his Afghan counterparts to improve their special operations systems.
Bahar left Active Duty in 2012 for his current position as General Counsel to the Minority Staff of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He describes leaving Active Duty as a very difficult career decision, but he enjoys being in the Reserves. In his current position, Bahar provides legal advice to Democratic committee members charged with overseeing seventeen elements of the U.S. intelligence community. As in his previous positions, Bahar does not shy away from hot-button national security challenges. His committee has recently addressed terrorism in North Africa, cybersecurity issues in U.S.-China relations, and the leaks to the NSA programs.
Bahar recommends that HLS students interested in national security work consider joining the military. “It’s the best way to break into the field,” he argues, “because military duty will help you build much needed credibility and substantive expertise. “National security is a small, specialized field, and it’s based largely on trust,” Bahar says. Although entering such a tight-knit field can be difficult, Bahar encourages students to relentlessly pursue opportunities because “once you’re in, it is far easier to move within the field–the first national security job you find will not be your last.” And there are many personal and professional rewards. “Your work will always be fascinating, important and humbling,” Bahar remarks.
Written by OPIA’s Summer Fellow Samantha Sokol
January 30, 2014 | 1 Comment
Allison Elgart ’05 currently serves as the Legal Director of Equal Justice Society (EJS), a nonprofit focused on establishing more safeguards and legal protections against racial discrimination. Elgart’s work in impact litigation, education, and community organizing is central to achieving EJS’ mission. EJS works to challenge the Intent Standard, which requires that the complainant in discrimination cases prove that the defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff. Since EJS believes that bias is often unconscious, structural, and unintentional, they argue that plaintiffs should not have to prove intent.
While Elgart always knew she wanted to pursue public interest work, she found a passion for civil rights law at HLS. By her 3L year, Elgart was the Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Civil Rights- Civil Liberties Law Review and a member of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. “My interests were broad, but I had a pretty good sense I wanted to pursue employment, housing, education, or immigrant rights law,” she says.
After a year-long judicial clerkship, Elgart began work as an Associate at Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, LLP, a national plaintiff’s firm. There, she litigated class action employment discrimination and consumer protection cases on behalf of employees and consumers. Elgart highly recommends working at a private public interest firm to students interested in pursuing civil rights law. “The valuable litigation experience you earn will take you a long way,” she says.
After almost five years at Lieff Cabraser, Elgart was interested in finding a position where she could apply the litigation skills she learned at Lieff to a mission-driven nonprofit organization focused on issues of racial justice. She found a posting for a Supervising Attorney position at Equal Justice Society in OPIA’s weekly Alumni Jobs Digest e-mail. EJS seemed like a good fit; Elgart wanted to work in an organization that partnered with leading racial justice or civil rights groups and had a collaborative, dedicated staff. EJS is driven by a “mission to change constitutional law so that it better protects people of color.” Elgart started as a Supervising Staff Attorney and then became the Legal Director. Her day-to-day duties include meeting with allied civil rights organizations, performing legal research and writing or editing memos or briefs, and strategizing about legal theories to challenge the intent doctrine. As a supervisor, Elgart oversees young attorneys and law clerks. “Mentoring is one of the most rewarding parts of my job,” she says. “I enjoy helping attorneys who are deeply committed to civil rights move along on their career paths.”
Elgart’s advice for HLS students and alumni interested in civil rights is to demonstrate to potential employers that they are passionate about the field. “Do a one or two year fellowship at a nonprofit. Semester-long internships and clinics are also great. Even if you are already at a corporate firm, take on the pro bono cases available and volunteer in your free time,” she advises. Elgart also stresses the importance of networking and informational interviews. Talking to practicing civil rights attorneys and asking them about their experience will help you learn how to succeed in your job search, she says. Lastly, Elgart argues that making a good impression at a job interview is essential. “That’s how applicants stand out in my mind,” she says. “Let your enthusiasm, commitment, and passion for civil rights come across.”
Written by OPIA Summer Fellow Samantha Sokol
January 16, 2014 | Leave a Comment
Last summer, Caroline Sacerdote worked for the Legal Resources Centre (“LRC”) in South Africa. Most of her time was spent working on domestic impact litigation, but she also had the opportunity to work in international human rights. Caroline’s summer at the LRC showed her how the law can be used as a tool to solve social problems.
At the LRC, Caroline worked closely with an attorney focused on women’s and children’s rights. She conducted legal research and drafted memoranda on topics including indigency law and special schools. Caroline carried out fact-finding, creating a questionnaire to discover how policies were being implemented, and did follow-up interviews with community stakeholders. Her research uncovered problems with the implementation of laws, and she was able to see how impact litigation begins and discuss strategies for how to tackle problems.
Caroline also analyzed testimony for the Marikana Commission, which is mandated to investigate the events at the Lonmin Mine, where 34 people were killed and more than 70 people were injured during a strike in 2012. She synthesized and coded testimony for the attorneys to use in their closing arguments. Additionally, Caroline participated in a civil society meeting critiquing South Africa’s draft report on women’s rights for the Maputo Protocol and worked on both the LRC’s commentary and shadow report.
At HLS, Caroline has sought ways to develop her knowledge on a variety of public interest issues, with an emphasis on gender and sexuality. Her work at the LRC helped narrow her focus to LGBTQIA and reproductive rights issues. It also solidified her desire to work in impact litigation. An aspect of the LRC’s work that Caroline particularly admired is how connected the Centre is with the people it serves.
Caroline enjoyed working at the LRC. The staff was extremely driven but the atmosphere was friendly, casual, and non-hierarchical. She was given leeway to manage her own workload, and her supervising attorney provided ample feedback on her work. She enjoyed sitting in the copy room with another intern and a legal researcher. Instead of being a distraction, Caroline liked the steady flow of people, which allowed her to get to know her co-workers very well.
One of the best parts about working in South Africa is the newness of the country’s constitution. The jurisprudence is so new, and there is a strong focus on human rights issues embedded directly within the constitution.
Caroline would recommend the LRC for anybody interested in substantive public interest issues, international law, and/or impact litigation. She was able to get hands-on experience that has inspired her to pursue impact litigation as a career. This summer, Caroline will be interning with the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York as a Summer Ford Fellow.
Written by OPIA 1L Section Representative Jillian Wagman
Meg Holden, a 3L, is deeply interested in environmental law, which she hopes to build into a career in environmental litigation and policy work. Prior to attending law school, Meg worked for two years for an environmental NGO in New Delhi, India. She came to law school in large part to prepare for a career focused on protecting the environment, both at home and abroad.
Last summer, Meg interned at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Washington, D.C., where she supported the organization’s environmental litigation and broader policy efforts. Meg loved her experience; she particularly enjoyed the autonomy that she was given in determining her areas of focus, as well as the diversity of her assignments (her work covered a wide variety of topics related to climate change and international policy). One of the highlights of her internship was helping to research/write a brief for a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
During her 1L summer, Meg worked in the Environmental Crimes Section of the U.S. Department of Justice. Throughout the summer, she worked on criminal litigation in which the defendants, typically corporations, had broken laws aimed at protecting ecological and wildlife resources. Meg really enjoyed the work and found that it provided her with a more nuanced appreciation for the demands of environmental litigation. She particularly valued the opportunity to work on substantive assignments alongside a team of such high-caliber attorneys.
As someone planning a career in litigation, Meg found her 1L summer experience in litigation particularly valuable. She also underscores how important it is to network before, during and after 1L summer.
Meg will be clerking in Washington, D.C. next year and eventually hopes to continue to work on environmental litigation and policy.
Written by OPIA 1L Section Representative Ilan Stein
December 6, 2013 | Leave a Comment
Steven Choi ’04, Executive Director for the New York Immigration Coalition, was honored at the 2013 Felix A. Fisherman Awards Luncheon on Nov. 21. The award recognized his “progressive advocacy work and commitment to helping others in need at the House of the New York City Bar Association in Manhattan.”
December 5, 2013 | Leave a Comment
Last summer, 2L Steven Green worked at the U.S. Department of Justice in the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section. In this role, Steven worked on a variety of projects, ranging from legal research and writing to working on search warrant affidavits and other trial-related documents. He also had the opportunity to work on international legal assistance requests regarding investigation materials.
The Fraud section allowed Steven to combine his interests in criminal law, litigation, international law and investigative work. Steven’s summer experience shaped his future plans by reinforcing his desire to pursue a career in litigation, and further exposed him to the benefits of federal government work.
The Fraud Section accepts about a dozen interns every summer, creating a collegial and collaborative atmosphere among the intern class. Each intern is assigned a mentor attorney who assigns projects, so the work Steven did closely tracked the needs of his mentor. The atmosphere of the Fraud section was collegial and cordial while also being fast-paced and hard-working. The hours were manageable and allowed for an enjoyable summer experience.
In addition to informing his future career plans, Steven’s experience at DOJ also helped improve his legal research and writing skills. These skills have come in handy back at HLS when, for example, he is assisting a professor with research or editing a journal article for grammar and bluebook errors.
Steven recommends the Fraud Section at DOJ for anyone looking “to do high-level, interesting legal work with a real sense of purpose and an enjoyable atmosphere.” He recommends the experience for anyone interested in litigation, corporate, or other areas of the law, because the Section covers a wide range of interests by allowing interns to pursue criminal litigation involving business matters.
Written by OPIA 1L Section Representative Ally Coll Steele
December 4, 2013 | Leave a Comment
Until recently Emma Fenelon was a Legal Project Manager at the AIRE Centre (Centre for Advice on Individual Rights in Europe). She hails from Ireland and earned her undergraduate law degree at Trinity College Dublin. As a teenager Fenelon was drawn to Law because she enjoyed debate and had read about the efforts of figures such as former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson and Senator David Norris, and how they had used law as a tool for progressive social change. During her first summer of undergraduate study, she interned with a senator in Dublin which developed her interest in public policy and spent much of her time at Trinity involved in the College Historical Society, the University’s oldest debating student society. A year spent on exchange at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Virginia led to an interest in international criminal law and a summer interning at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague on the defence team of Radovan Karadzic. This experience made Fenelon realize that she would rather work with everyday public interest law than mass atrocities.
After completing her degree at Trinity, Fenelon spent a year earning her LL.M at Harvard Law School, where she focused on international human rights and the law relating to social movements, studying under Professors Philip Alston, Lani Guinier and Catherine MacKinnon. In addition her experience as a member of the the International Human Rights Clinic, and the supervision of Former Professor James Cavallaro was particularly influential. The summer after receiving her degree she worked on an Irish Presidential campaign and was a legal trainee at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. This traineeship was a formative experience; Fenelon’s interest in European Convention law deepened, and she developed experience that proved useful in her first job at the AIRE Centre a London-based nonprofit that protects vulnerable and marginalised migrants by assisting them in asserting their European Union legal rights, providing legal advice, and representing them before domestic and international Courts.
Funded by HLS, Fenelon joined the AIRE Centre as a Satter Human Rights Fellow and spent her first year working on the Centre’s projects in the Balkans. She was responsible for implementing projects in Serbia and Montenegro, including rule of law projects designed to train judges, prosecutors, and other legal professionals in human rights law, especially the European Convention on Human Rights. The following year Fenelon became a staff member, which involved working for the Center’s advice service, which provides free advice on EU law in relation to immigration and welfare benefits. In addition to written advice, Fenelon represented low-income, marginalized clients before domestic tribunals and, when under the supervision of the Legal Director, at the European Court of Human Rights. During her second year at the AIRE Center Fenelon also became a Legal Project Manager. In this role she works to identify, condemn, and eliminate discrimination against ethnic minorities in the UK and to empower those minorities, particularly members of the Roma community.
Fenelon spends a lot of time with clients, and finds that working with and on behalf of those who would otherwise be unable to afford legal advice is the favorite part of her job. Fenelon also values the opportunity to make a deeper impact by bringing strategic cases before domestic and international courts; because the Center receives many requests for assistance, it has a comprehensive understanding of the systemic legal problems faced by vulnerable migrants and can select strategic cases to advocate for policy change. During the past few years, working on EU law has allowed Fenelon to engage directly with the immigration debate, a particularly controversial issue in the UK and throughout the Continent.
This September, Fenelon left the AIRE Center for the House of Lords, where she became a Parliamentary Legal Officer for Lord Anthony Lester, a Liberal Democrat Peer who often works on human rights matters. Fenelon hopes that this new position will teach her about the machinery of the legislative process and deepen her knowledge of extra-legal advocacy. Moving forward she plans to become a barrister and continue to work on public interest issues, including human rights and immigration.
Fenelon advises students planning public interest careers to talk to as many people as possible in their areas of interest; these informational conversations and informal chats allow students to get a feel for whether they are suited to particular kinds of work. Those hoping to work for NGOs should realize that paid entry-level jobs are extremely difficult to come by, so it is important to be creative about how to make oneself a valuable, attractive potential hire. Students should apply for fellowships and should choose their internships strategically to maximize the likelihood that they will lead to regular employment. Last but not least, Fenelon encourages students to be open-minded about their early career steps. While she could not have foreseen that she would work in immigration and EU law, she loves her work and the opportunity to both help individual clients and pursue international cases with a broader impact.
Written by 2013 OPIA Summer Fellow Julie Yen
November 27, 2013 | 4 Comments
Current 3L Abbey Marr spent her summer working at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NWDA) in Oakland, CA. The NDWA and its 45 affiliate organizations advocate for “respect, recognition and inclusion in labor protections for domestic workers.”
After working in impact litigation on reproductive rights and education issues, Abbey sought out an environment that emphasized grassroots organizing. At the NDWA, she found a small, innovative umbrella organization consisting of organizers, policy and media staff, and several undergraduate and graduate policy interns. Although at the time the NDWA did not have any attorneys, they may bring on a lawyer soon.
Abbey split her time between researching state labor laws and joining a national campaign around immigration reform. As many states have been pushing for new labor legislation to include domestic workers, the NDWA needed a comprehensive sense of the existing laws. For legal supervision, she turned to the attorneys at the National Employment Law Project, who partner with the NDWA. While working on the “We Belong Together” immigration reform campaign, Abbey analyzed aspects of the proposed bill through a gender lens and suggested adjustments to the legislation to better serve women specifically.
Abbey described the NDWA’s Oakland office as community-based, casual, flexible, fun, and occasionally chaotic. NDWA shares its space with one of its affiliate groups, whose members were often coming in and out of the office, and holding English or yoga classes. Abbey appreciated that she could easily talk to domestic workers who were convening at the office, and she sought their input on the proposed nationwide bills that she was analyzing. Although many of the staff members were traveling for the immigration reform campaign throughout the summer, Abbey said she received good project-based supervision from the NDWA staff and National Employment Law Project attorneys.
As the only legal intern, Abbey warns that students in won’t get experience in legal representation at the NDWA. But she spoke highly of the NDWA internship for students who want to see how lawyers and organizers work together. NDWA is a dynamic organization that is part of a rapidly growing movement, and Abbey recommends this position for students interested in being at the forefront of organizing low-wage workers.
Written by OPIA 1L Section Representative Sophie Elsner
Alison was drawn to this internship largely because she wanted to learn more about public interest law. She had also developed a specific interest in education after tutoring and teaching in community education settings. After spending time on OPIA’s internship databases and reading previous interns’ glowing reviews, Alison decided to apply to DESE.
Alison reports that she had a phenomenal experience at DESE. The Office of Legal Counsel is a small team, and she was one of only three interns. This afforded her many opportunities to get to know the staff members and to learn from their work. She speaks particularly highly of her supervisor, who made it a point to ensure that Alison was getting to work on projects that interested her and was being exposed to a variety of tasks.
The Office of Legal Counsel has a wide scope of responsibilities as the department’s in-house counsel, but Alison focused on a few projects this summer. She most enjoyed writing a procedural manual on how to conduct investigations on teachers’ licensure revocations because it allowed her to learn about the entire investigative process, from start to finish, and because she knows it will be useful to future staff members and interns. Alison also reviewed collaborative agreements between school districts and put her LRW skills to work in a variety of legal research projects.
Alison will work at a law firm in New York City next summer, but she plans to keep the door open to working in the education field again. She highly recommends an internship at DESE to students looking for substantive work and caring mentors.
– Written by OPIA 1L Section Representative Isabel Broer