Ivey Files

August 18, 2008

"My International Summer Internship Was a Bust"

Anna,

I read your blog before making the decision to attend law school and right on through my 1L year. I've learned a lot. Thank you.

I attend the [deleted] School of Law and received a public interest fellowship to do a summer internship at [deleted], an NGO that provides free legal services to poor farmers in Cambodia. I'm part of the land law unit, which tries to protect rural farmers from land seizures.

In a nutshell, I signed on for a summer internship in a foreign country and have done almost no substantive legal work, partly because I was placed in a dysfunctional unit, partly because of the low English level of my colleagues, and partly because I'm having a hard time creating good opportunities to do legal work.

My dysfunctional unit. One problem is my colleagues and supervisors don't seem to do much. I nicknamed one attorney "man that stares at his cell phone" in honor of his 8 hour a day activity. The lack of work is partly due to the fact that government doesn't respond to motions, follow its own laws, or respect the court system. It's common to wait months for rulings, only to find out the court is "too busy" and will not issue any ruling at all, or the case file has been lost. As a result, the attorneys often wait around and do nothing.

I think my boss is depressed about the corruption. The program's two showcase lawsuits have been going on for 7 and 4 years respectively. In the first case, the local prosecutor has refused to correctly implement the presiding judge's verdict, and in the second case everyone involved in facilitating the fraudulent sale of indigenous land has admitted to taking bribes in a transaction that was, on its face, against the law (the land was sold to the sister of the Minister of Finance).

I should provide a little more context. At the end of the Vietnamese occupation following the Khmer Rouge, there were only a handful of lawyers in Cambodia. By 2007 there were 574. A good number work for NGOs and legal aid organizations. So it's understandable that attorneys have only a shallow pool of legal experience to draw upon when considering legal strategy, but we mainly do nothing. (A side note: At our organization the lack of activity is partly due to poor organizational structure. The bylaws allow the employees to elect the management team, which creates a huge disincentive for the management team to "crack the whip" leading to the current very weak executive director).

I know that one of the themes of your blog is that Gen Y's self-involvement leads to unreasonable expectations and more than an acceptable level of complaining. So I decided to create a writing project for myself where I would investigate how to go about filing a complaint in US courts against a Cambodian-American that dispossessed 23 families using armed men and bulldozers. I thought several allied NGOs were representing the families. I went to the province and met with people from the 3 other NGOs, but no one spoke sufficient English to discuss the case. I had to get the moto taxi driver to translate, which of course didn't work since the taxi driver's English was limited to "right, left" and not "motion, complaint." Then I went and interviewed an American ex-pat restaurant owner who witnessed the seizure. He was smoking pot during the interview. Anyway, long story short the NGOs weren't representing the families anymore because they never had actual title to the land and the Cambodian-American is politically connected and paid an acceptable bribe to the local families. The memo, while a nice academic exercise, would be functionally useless. Instead I'm writing another grant proposal and shadowing my boss to his infrequent meetings with court officials (going to an hour meeting in the provinces can take 3 days after factoring in driving).

But that's it. I've got an interesting story or two about the outrageous facts in the cases, but I haven't done much substantive legal work. In on campus interviews, I can show an attorney a picture of a client meeting with a monkey in the background but not a legal memo.

I am concerned about on campus interviews. Although I am doing public interest work this summer and will have meaningful service in my legal career, I would like to have the opportunity to work for a mid-size to larger local firm next summer and after graduation. My big hairy audacious goal is to be part of the legal community that shapes [US city's] land use regulations to meet the transportation and environmental challenges of the next century.

What advice do you have? I'm actually pretty down on my summer experience. The land law unit has a poor reputation with its donors and will probably lose its funding because of its failure to do much for its clients. For me personally, the unit's inactivity means I have a lot of dead time. I also haven't learned directly from any legal professionals that speak English well. When I'm asked to comment on what I did and how I liked it, I don't want to be too negative or dishonest. But honestly: "I sat around a lot in a foreign country, went to meetings that I didn't understand, and helped absolutely no one, in part, because the judicial system is utterly corrupt" is probably a conversation killer.

A final thought. Friends and family point to the value of a foreign experience and I think they're right. But for me, I think the marginal value of this experience is low. Like a lot of students that graduated from college around the time I did, I was fortunate enough to study abroad. I went to [deleted] for a semester. I also taught English in [deleted] after graduation for six months. Granted Cambodia is very different from either of those countries, but I still have a hard time saying with conviction that for me just being in a foreign country is a good use of my 1L summer.

I look forward to your thoughts. Any advice on how to spin gold out of this straw will be carefully studied. Thank you.

Holy cow, you've lived a lifetime in a summer. The only thing that could have been worse is if you'd spent the summer at Latham/Cravath/Kirkland/Perkins/BlahBlah. Seriously.

To prepare for interviews, you need to take the email you wrote me, put a far more positive spin on it, and outline at a practical level the barriers that stand between land-reform-in-theory and land-reform-in-practice. That's the perfect (short) law review article to start writing now, and the fact that you've got it under way is a great talking point during an interview. "What did you do this summer?" "I started the summer trying to protect rural Cambodians from property seizure. The summer I got was more interesting than what I signed up for — I ended up studying what's broken about the Cambodian legal system in practice, and now I'm writing an article about it." You're going to call it "Three Barriers to Real Property Protection in Cambodia," and I will be expecting a signed copy.

I also told a lawyer friend of mine about your predicament, and here's what he said:

It's interesting because we're trying to get a legal clinic going in Tanzania; that's my next uber-project, I think. Same challenges all around, though we do expect less corruption than in Cambodia. We also expect just as much inactivity, lack of movement in the courts, etc. Property rights is a big thing.

If you take the narrow view of "what law did I practice?", then yeah, his experience is limited. But that's not what law is in developing countries anyhow. My work in Tanzania so far has been spent trying to *see* a copy of the Tanzanian legal code. I finally did in South Africa, at the supreme court.

Incredibly experienced lawyers have a tough time getting anything done in the developing world, and you are at the teeny, weeny start of that learning curve. You have to start there, so try not to get frustrated just because you're facing as many hurdles as the superstar lawyers who are also getting stuck in the mire of "international law."

Back to interviews. What else can you do? You can talk about how grateful you are to be an American living in a country with laws and rights. You can talk about how hard it is to do any real legal work in a country where the government and the courts are hopelessly corrupt and no one bothers to do much about it. That's not an interview killer; it's an interview opener, especially if you approach it with humor and grace.

In the meantime, there's no need to mope around being depressed. You're there to help people, right? OK, you can't do much in your legal capacity*, and I think you're right about that part of it. But you can do two things — you can learn and you can help. You should learn all you can about Cambodian law and government so that if it ends up being a country you care about, you can work for change there the rest of your life. You should go out into the community and do anything you can to help them. Teach English. Help with infrastructure projects. Pitch in at the local medical clinic. Anything. You went there not only to get experience for yourself, but to serve, right? So serve in whatever way you can, whether it's through your NGO or not. You'll be helping the people you came to help, albeit not in the way you originally intended. Add to that a positive attitude, good war stories, and a sense of humor, and law firms would be crazy not to hire you. They'll see a self-starter, a team player, and a smart guy who knows how to make lemonade. What more could you want in an employee?

You are also infinitely wiser than you were at the start of the summer. You've been up to your elbows in the glamorous world of "International Law" that every law school applicant and his brother swears he wants to practice. Good for you that you've gone out and done it, and figured out what that really means, and have a bunch of stories to tell.

And to think you could have been sitting around in some air-conditioned American law firm writing memos that no one will read about Section 226 of the Labor Code ("Social Security Number Truncation on Pay Stubs"). You are way, way ahead.

*See update here about things you CAN do in Cambodia with a law degree.

"My work in Tanzania so far has been spent trying to *see* a copy of the Tanzanian legal code."
Anna, this contained a number of lols--and the cackling sympathy of those of us in far-flung places. I admire the wisdom of your reply.