Making a Contribution

Josua Lam enjoys the view during his law internship in Tanzania Photo : Josua Lam
Josua Lam enjoys the view during his law internship in Tanzania
Photo : Josua Lam

Lawyers and law students find enrichment in internships abroad

Allison Thomas says an internship that took her to Colombia three years ago taught her more than she’d ever learned while taking her law degree. “I was part of a team travelling around the country, talking to indigenous peoples,” she says. “The federal government in Colombia was developing laws for indigenous victims of armed conflict.”

Thomas herself was armed with a Law degree from the University of New Brunswick when she signed on to be part of an internship program organized by the Canadian Bar Association that permitted young graduates to go abroad to work in human rights and education. And like others who have done internships abroad in the legal field, she says the experience was extremely enriching. “I learned more in those eight months than I had during my law training.”

Many young law graduates and practicing lawyers who want to make a difference in the world are turning to international development internships abroad.

One organization that was created to facilitate those placements is Projects Abroad. Founded in Britain in 1992 by Peter Slowe, a university Geography professor, the organization now functions internationally and sends an average of 9,000 volunteers to overseas internships yearly.

“We have projects in 28 countries,” says Robert Levine, Director of Projects Abroad Canada. “People work in an array of positions, including education, health care, environmental projects, conservation, journalism, business, archaeology and disaster management.”

There are also law internships that can enrich the education and skill set of lawyers. “In the law internships, we have one called ‘Law and Human Rights’,” says Levine. “In the human rights field, you could be working with children’s rights, women’s rights, prisoners’ rights or you might be advising people of their legal rights. Our volunteers might also do workshops on legal rights.”

Levine says the key demographic for the internships is students and young graduates aged 17 to 24. “We also have quite a few people in mid-career who are looking for career change. A lot of people do these trips to get a sense of where they want to go,” he says. “Retirees, too. Since 2008, more Canadians have been doing this in retirement.”

An opportunity to help

Among lawyers who apply for internships, he says, some express interest in working in labour law, children’s rights or with victims of domestic violence. What they derive from the experience, he adds, is a sense of contribution.

There is room to influence and make a difference. You think you know nothing when you go in but you actually do know things and you can change lives.
— Sandra Aigbinode

“These are long-term sustainable projects they work on,” Levine says. “It’s an opportunity to help out another community.”

That was Sandra Aigbinode’s motivation. Currently a third-year Law student at McGill University, Aigbinode spent the summer of 2009 in South Africa on a human rights internship, working at Bonnytoun Youth Detention Centre. Shortly before, she had completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science – specializing in criminal justice and public policy – at the University of Guelph.

She found the internship through Projects Abroad Canada. The work involved holding workshops with a group of other volunteers for juvenile offenders at Bonnytoun on subjects ranging from “knowing your rights and dealing with the court process to how to treat women. Many were in there on sexual assault charges,” she says.

Aigbinode came away with a realization that “there is room to influence and make a difference. You think you know nothing when you go in but you actually do know things and you can change lives. Some of the repeat offenders in Bonnytoun promised me they would not re-offend. There was one boy there whose shoes were full of holes and whose family never visited him. I gave him my shoes. I was so happy to be able to do something for someone.”

It made me realize that it’s experience that teaches you, not the four years you spend in university writing essays.
— Sara Mandil

She and her group also worked as after-school tutors and addressed female victims of domestic violence about their legal rights. “Sometimes, we would walk the streets in a township and talk to women about their legal rights,” she says.

Aigbinode did a master’s degree at McGill University between 2009 and 2011 and then applied for law school. She believes her internship helped secure her a spot in McGill’s Faculty of Law. “It certainly solidified my interest in studying law,” she says. “And when I was interviewed for law school, they were very interested in my internship.”

Real life experience

Allison Thomas, 32, was already a lawyer when she did her eight-month internship in Colombia through the Canadian Bar Association. “It was an internship for lawyers,” she says. “You have to have been called to the bar to do it.”

Based in Bogota, she travelled around Colombia with Colombian government officials, members of non-governmental organizations and lawyers representing indigenous victims of armed conflicts. “The new law would compensate them for what had happened during the armed conflict,” she says. “Some had lost loved ones; others had lost their land. There had been physical harm and displacements. The goal, she adds, was to establish who had a case to litigate. “For my first four months there, we were teaching people about the law and consulting them about it. The rest of the time I was there, I worked on strategic litigation projects.”

The eight months she spent doing the internship was an education. “After I returned home, I went to Ethiopia and worked with the UN High Commission for Refugees, interviewing people from Sudan and Somalia about their applications for refugee status.”

“It’s worth it,” says Thomas. “It enabled me to do something I couldn’t do at school.”

Calgary-based lawyer Joshua Lam did the Canadian Bar Association Young Lawyers Internship Program after graduating from law school at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He went to Kenya, where he worked for the International Commission of Jurists, a non-governmental organization that promotes human rights in East Africa. “My work was to move around the country with the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission of Kenya,” he says. “We were attending hearings to ensure the rights of witnesses and the community were being respected.”

Other stops on his itinerary included Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to participate in legal education and workshops on criminal justice. “We were doing advocacy to build support among lawyers and judges in these countries for the International Criminal Court. We were dispelling myths about it.”

Lam says his internship was “by far one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. After my internship ended, the International Commission of Jurists hired me as an assistant program officer and I ended up staying for another year in Kenya. I recommend internships to any lawyer who is interested in international work.”

So does Sara Mandil of Hamilton, Ontario. She had graduated with a Political Science degree from Brock University when she took a two-month internship with Projects Abroad Canada in Morocco. “I was working on local projects there, encouraging youth to stay in school and on maternal health projects.”

The kind of real-life learning was unlike anything she had experienced in school, she says. “It made me realize that it’s experience that teaches you, not the four years you spend in university writing essays.”

Robert Levine of Projects Abroad Canada concurs. “This is an opportunity to do some self-exploration and it helps prepare you for your next level of education,” he says.