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U law student describes her experiences interning with the South African Human Rights Commission.

Elizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth Thomas, a second year law student, spent the summer interning with the South African Human Rights Commission in Cape Town, South Africa. She details in an interview with @TheU how her training at the U’s College of Law helped her to make her own opportunities during the internship, relates how South Africa’s history of apartheid has led to robust constitutional human rights protections and explains why working with “diverse, complicated” clients was her favorite part of the experience.

Q: First, let’s start at the beginning—how did you hear about the Hinckley internship and what about the opportunity particularly appealed to you?

A: I first heard about the internship from Kay Shelton when she and I started speaking about opportunities for a student interested in working internationally. I was looking to see if I could apply for in-state tuition even though I would be out of the country, and she recommended that I go to the Hinckley Institute. When I first went to Hinckley, I met Courtney who runs the internship program and she gave me an overview about working with the Human Rights Commission in South Africa. Although her advice wasn’t about the legal aspects, the draw of Cape Town was certainly part of my decision. Knowing a little bit about the broad human rights constructions within the constitution of South Africa also led me to be interested in working there, and that was only furthered by the recommendations from alumni. After chatting with a few U alumni who had previously worked in the area, I was hooked. They told me stories about working with disadvantaged groups of women in townships, experiences in parliament lobbying for human rights, direct work writing reports that would be read by the U.N. and the general atmosphere of the constitution in South Africa. Every single person spoke about how the internship had helped them find direction for their legal careers, and when you hear advice like that, you don’t say no.

Q: In your student evaluations, you frequently addressed the importance of being self-motivated in order to succeed.  How did your training at the College of Law help prepare you for that requirement?  By comparison, were your fellow interns equally well prepared?

A: Any law student who attends the U is already quite self-motivated, but often times can be shy about asking for opportunities in the workplace because they don’t want to be annoying to their superiors in asking for more work. Thus far, my training at the U has certainly made me realize that you make your own opportunities, and that was what made my internship such a success. At the U, we are such a small community where everyone knows each others’ names, thus, opportunities are made through making contacts, so all you have to do is ask around and opportunities will appear. If you’re not motivated enough to ask about opportunities then you’ll never know what you’re missing out on.

At my internship, there were other students there with less motivation than myself, who were not as comfortable asking for further work, and their relationships with their supervisors as well as their recommendations suffered because of that. If they had been more motivated to create connections and ask for more work, perhaps their situation would have ended differently.

Q: What did you learn about the South African parliamentary and legal systems during your internship?  Did any of your discoveries particularly surprise you?

A: The South African legal system is in a period of flux right now, as their courts are still developing case law that interprets their less than 20-year-old constitution. Having done some research on the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights and the U.N. Guiding Principles with a professor at the U before leaving Utah, once I arrived at the Commission I began to see many direct links between human rights and their protection built into the constitution in a way that I never thought possible. This came not so much as a surprise, but was more impressive and fascinating in that it was so ingrained into this new legal mechanism. So much of the history of South Africa and apartheid have shaped the people and its legal system, but now, the resurgence of law that prevents such atrocities from happening again has created a legal landscape unlike any other I have ever encountered, and they could very well be leading the world in the protection of human rights in the future.

Q: You wrote about many of your experiences in South Africa in blog postings over the summer.  Now that a couple of months have gone by, which of your experiences were most moving or memorable?  What about the placement with SAHRC most surprised you or was particularly unexpected?

A: Some of the most memorable experiences from my internship still feel fresh in my mind. Working directly with diverse, complicated clients was by far my favorite part of the entire summer. I’ll certainly never forget my experiences with particularly difficult clients who challenged me to become a better lawyer, and taught me patience in the professional world. What was most unexpected about this internship was the amount of freedom I was given while in the office. I expected to watch and be watched rather than be able to do things on my own, but the amount of freedom I was given allowed me to learn more quickly and in a more hands-on manner, which is something a young associate would never get in a big firm setting.

Q:   What were your takeaways from the internship?  Do you believe any of your experiences will be particularly valuable when you enter practice?  If so, which?

A: There were so many takeaways and yes, these will absolutely be valuable in practice. My work with clients doing intake in every situation you could imagine was certainly helpful and will continue to be so, but also writing portions of reports on business and human rights, on water and sanitation issues and hate speech all provided me with such a diverse experience, which made me feel more confident in those skill sets in an array of topics. Having an internship abroad shows that I can be flexible, culturally sensitive, and professional all at once. Learning how to implement creativity and flexibility into practice while working within the constraints of the law will be a challenge for my lifetime, so this experience was only the beginning of the long road of becoming an international lawyer.

Q: Would you encourage your fellow students to explore opportunities like the one you took advantage of?  If so, why?

A: Absolutely! If you have an interest that doesn’t necessarily fit within the “norms” of law school internships, go for it. If you have an opportunity to do an internship that no one else has ever done before, the faculty, staff and students at the U will be behind you the whole way to make sure that you reach your goals. In today’s globalized society, a J.D. no longer guarantees you a job, so if you find a niche that requires you to think outside the box a little, or an internship that makes your resume stand out, it can only help you in your job search later on.