Students Work Abroad With Help From Law School Grants

October 7, 2008

When former Dean John C. Jeffries Jr. spoke to the Law School's first-year students last year, Elizabeth Norton took his words to heart.

Elizabeth Norton

"When someone asked the dean what we should do over the summer, he said, 'I think you should all just go work on a boat or do something really different,'" she recalled. "I think he said that because it's sort of our last summer to do that kind of a thing."

While Norton didn't go work on a boat, she decided to apply for a Public Interest Law Association grant and spend her last "free" summer doing something unusual. As one of the 50 first-year law students to receive a $4,123 PILA grant to support work in public service jobs over the summer, Norton went to Sierra Leone, where she worked for the country's Anti Corruption Commission.

"The corruption is at all levels," Norton said. "When you first get to the country, the people working in customs ask for bribes. Police will pull you over and ask for a bribe. It's really bad."

Norton spent 10 weeks helping the commission perfect and promote the Anti-Corruption Act of 2008, which became law in mid-August, two weeks after she returned to the United States. The act strengthens the Anti Corruption Commission, most notably by giving it prosecutorial authority, and by creating a new requirement that public officials declare all of their own and their family members' assets.

While Norton was pleased to help promote a good cause in Sierra Leone, she also gained important experience and insight into the challenges that attorneys face in some countries, where electricity, computer access and office supplies such as paper can be scarce.

"I learned a lot about corruption, the problems it causes, the damage it can do and the enforcement," Norton said. "I really enjoyed working with lawyers in Sierra Leone. It's certainly a different approach than what we learn in law school here."

Freeing Slaves in South Asia

Chris and Jamie Schoen

Chris and Jamie Schoen used their PILA grants to travel to South Asia to work for the International Justice Mission, a Washington, D.C.-based human rights agency that secures justice for victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression.

The Schoens, now second-year law students, assisted IJM attorneys and the government in prosecuting forced-labor cases, which often occur in South Asia after someone takes a small loan and is unable to repay. While the practice of issuing a bond with labor as collateral is illegal in the country where the Schoens worked, they said slavery is still rampant because slaveholders use fear or misinformation to oppress workers.

"There's a lot of good law on the books, but there's a lot of legal questions that made it interesting and exciting," Chris Schoen said. "It let me see some of the things you can do with a law degree, and it opened my eyes to how people in much of the world have to live."

Chris Schoen said it was beneficial to learn a new genre of law in a different legal system. Most of all, he said, he learned the value of poise and patience as he watched the South Asian attorneys operate in a bureaucratic legal system where even the tiniest amount of progress can take months and researching often involves digging through 50-year-old books.

Schoen said he also learned about the other, equally important side of IJM's work - promoting their cause in the United States and other privileged countries. Even if an attorney doesn't practice law for IJM across the globe, he or she can still make a difference by helping to raise money and awareness, and lobby for progress.

"It's so much easier to go to work and be excited every day when you know how important your work is," he said. "The people are so poor and need so much help; it challenged me to do my best to make a difference."

Promoting Women's Rights in South Africa

Leigh Miller

Leigh Miller, now a second-year law student, used her PILA grant to work for three months at the Women's Legal Center, a nonprofit in Cape Town, South Africa. The organization's work focuses on promoting equality for South Africa's women, especially women of color, in a country still recovering from Apartheid.

"The South African constitution is very progressive and grants the people a lot of rights and equality, but there is a big gap between that and how the rights are actually implemented in day-to-day life," she said. "The attorneys I worked with were all female attorneys, and the majority of them were black attorneys, or 'colored' as they call it. They were very passionate about what they were fighting for, and very in tune with what was going on in the country and where they needed to go."

While Miller was in South Africa, the Women's legal Center won an important case that grants inheritance rights to women in Muslim polygamist marriages.

"One of the things that the Women's Legal Center accomplished a few years ago was gaining inheritance rights for Muslim married women, so after the spouse died they were able to inherit, but during their lifetime they are not legally recognized as spouses," Miller said. "What [the Women's Legal Center] recently did was gain the same inheritance rights for the second or third wife."

While she was there, Miller wrote a commentary on South Africa's recently passed Sexual Offenses Act, and completed smaller projects for individual attorneys. For one, she researched Zulu wedding ceremonies in order to determine the exact moment at which the marriage becomes official.

Miller said the attorneys she worked with were inspirational because of their passion and ability to innovatively interpret the country's constitution to help heal the wounds left by Apartheid.

"South Africa has such a unique history and political and social situation currently that it was really an ideal time to go. They're in such a time of transition and change and healing that it felt like I was really in a position to make a difference with pretty substantial impacts and accomplishments," Miller said.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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