By Benjamin Gerson
This past summer, I worked in New York City at the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, which provides legal support for human rights projects in Latin America and Africa. These projects, run by nongovernmental organizations, are matched to global law firms that offer their resources on a pro bono basis to solve any legal problems the projects entail.
Working at the Vance Center, I was tasked with the preliminary research and drafting for projects which were to be assigned to global law firms. I worked on projects that addressed the right to freedom of expression under international law, environmental land conservation in South America, the rights of children without parental care to international adoption, a constitutional challenge to a law in South Africa which limited the rights of journalists, and the feasibility of growing the pro bono ethic in the legal profession in Africa. My work served to prepare attorneys at large firms to take on these projects.
The most challenging aspect of my task was researching a broad topic and defining the issue. Attorneys I worked with often had general knowledge of the project but needed a discrete legal issue to act on. Thorough research, as well as being concise and on point, was key. While this was a challenge, I had the opportunity to meet and discuss projects with experienced attorneys, who gave excellent guidance.
The classes that best prepared me were Legal Analysis, Writing and Research; Transnational Law; and Civil Procedure. The large quantity of research and writing I did this summer made Professor Colesanti’s legal writing lessons on being concise and relying on proper authority invaluable. Different legal traditions as well as mechanisms for resolving disputes under international law were topics I encountered often. In conducting research, I was very aware of the need to acknowledge the relevant procedure that accompanied laws and treaties. Whether researching amicus curiae briefs in South Africa or jurisprudence from the Human Rights Committee, recognizing how substantive law was handled procedurally helped me create a better work product.
By far the most interesting projects dealt with freedom of expression internationally. International treaties protect the right to freedom of expression, but often the media is restricted, limiting the ability to fully exercise that right. Researching media regulations in Africa revealed a broad range of approaches to regulating freedom of expression, from relatively benign public order restrictions to total media blackouts.
My main interest after law school is to work in emerging economies, mostly in Africa. Since many of those are also emerging democracies, strengthening the rule of law and human rights is essential. My work at the Vance Center prepared me by exposing me not only to human rights issues, but also to the local laws and legal culture in many African countries. Working with large law firms was also instructive in that it gave me firsthand experience approaching some of these issues in real-world projects.