A while back I wrote about the predicament of an American law student who feared he was wasting his summer working for a non-profit in Cambodia. He felt frustrated by the corruption, the non-existent law enforcement, and the inertia he was witnessing in the legal system, and he was feeling useless and a bit depressed:
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.
I advised him:
You're there to help people, right? OK, you can't do much legally, 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.
Turns out, I was wrong. There are things you can do wearing your legal hat. This week's New Yorker has an article about a Harvard and Chicago trained attorney named Gary Haugen who went to Cambodia to offer legal services to the poor. In particular, he focuses on the absence of proper law enforcement -- the "abusive police, entrenched bribery, mismanaged courts.... The poor didn't just need lawyers; they needed new legal systems." In short, he's out there helping to fix all the things that were getting our intern down.
Since 1997, Haugen and his team of lawyers have provided legal assistance to almost 15,000 people in twelve developing countries: "bonded laborers, children who have been sold into prostitution, widows who have had land seized, poor people who...languish in jail for crimes they did not commit."
Haugen has his critics, and his hiring practices in particular have come under fire (his organization is explicitly religious, and he requires a statement of faith from job applicants). But I wanted to share what he's doing because it demonstrates one way that people are using their law degrees to make real and immediate progress in the developing world.
A note of caution -- and career planning -- for law school applicants who want to do this kind of work. You'll need to get hands-on litigation experience before you become useful out in the field:
[H]e prefers to recruit government prosecutors, defense lawyers, and corporate lawyers who have extensive casework experience. "The circumstances afford no generosity for those who bring only good intentions, the best of motives or the most tender of hearts."
Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).