Conversations with Practitioners is our ongoing series in which we ask current practitioners about their careers
1. What do you currently do?
I am a staff attorney at EarthRights International (ERI), a nonprofit human rights and environmental organization with offices in SE Asia, the Amazon, and Washington, D.C. ERI uses transnational litigation and advocacy strategies to support indigenous and traditional communities in protecting their human rights and their environment.
2. What does your job entail?
Our team uses a wide range of different tools and strategies to support communities and promote accountability. I have been involved in representing communities, activists, and advocacy organizations in civil litigation against multinational corporations such as Chevron, Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical), Chiquita, and Shell, as well as the International Finance Corporation (the private lending arm of the World Bank) and the American Petroleum Institute. I’ve had the privilege of working directly with communities in Papua New Guinea and India and facilitating workshops in Ghana for human rights and environmental lawyers from West Africa. I’ve advocated to strengthen extractive industry transparency rules and reporting requirements for new investment in Myanmar (Burma) following the easing of US sanctions, and fended off corporate attacks on the free speech rights of activists and journalists. I love my job and every day it challenges me to think creatively.
3. What did you do in law school or immediately after law school that has helped you develop your career?
The clinical work I did in law school was the most formative for me, both in terms of giving me critical practical experience but also in helping me learn what it means to be an effective advocate and figure out what it was I really wanted to do with my career. My experience representing individuals who had been wrongfully convicted with the Innocence Project clinic gave me the opportunity to learn critical fact-finding and investigative skills and gain experience interviewing witnesses and drafting legal arguments. All of these skills are important in my work today. Through the International Human Rights Clinic, I worked on grass roots human rights advocacy training and capacity building and a project examining the social and economic impacts of extractive industries on indigenous communities. The experience not only gave me important training as a human rights advocate, but also helped me figure out more specifically what I wanted to do with my career. I didn’t love law school my 1L year, especially my first semester when I didn’t get choose any of my classes. But that all changed for me once I started work in a clinic, and felt like I was able to do something meaningful that actually made a difference.
4. Do you have any advice for current law students who are interested in working in your industry (or law students in general)?
Law school tends to push people towards certain well established paths, especially big law, and at times that can feel isolating if you know those paths aren’t for you. This is especially true for people who are trying to do something in public interest outside of working for the government. If you know why you came to law school, whether it is a vague notion that you want to do something that makes a difference, or if you have a specific passion or an interest in a particular issue, don’t let the pressure of law school and the pressure to do what everyone else is doing push you towards something different. Don’t forget why you came here in the first place.
The law is a powerful tool, and one you can use in more ways than you could ever imagine as a student. Take advantage of your time in law school to do as many different things outside the classroom as possible. In addition to finding diverse internship experiences, do as many different clinics as you can, get involved in pro bono projects in subjects that interest you, get experience in direct services, use winter break to volunteer somewhere, spend a semester doing an externship. Not only do these experiences give you practical skills and experience that make you more valuable to employers after school, but it also gives you exposure to the different ways people can use their law degree and the different strategies you can use to make a difference.
Lawyers have immense potential to contribute to positive change and find positive solutions that make a difference in peoples’ lives. Even if you aren’t in a public service career, find ways to do pro bono projects and use your legal skills to volunteer in your community. Life is short. Find something that inspires you, drives you and something you can feel proud of.
Michelle Harrison is a staff attorney at EarthRights International, an international human rights and environmental organization with offices in Washington DC, SE Asia and the Amazon. After graduating from UVA Law in 2012, Michelle began working at ERI as a Robert F. Kennedy Public Service Fellow. While at UVA, Michelle worked as a clinical student on human rights issues ranging from grass roots human rights advocacy training and capacity building to examining the social and economic impacts of extractive industries on indigenous communities. During this time, Michelle also worked in Tanzania for the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and with the Innocence Project, providing post-conviction representation. Michelle holds a B.A. in Political Science and Environmental Science and a minor in French from Miami University. At ERI, she focuses on transnational corporate accountability litigation and advocacy strategies to support communities in protecting their human rights and their environment. She has worked with communities in Papua New Guinea and India, advocated to strengthen extractive industry transparency rules, defended the first amendment rights of activists, and challenged the immunity of international organizations like the World Bank.