The Offbeat Path: International Human Rights

Hello! My name is Carissa Mulder, and this is my first post on Ms. JD. Since this is my first post, I thought I would provide a little background on myself and on the topic of my blog posts.

 The financial crash of 2008 brought changed the lives of many lawyers and lawyers-to-be, including me. I was a 3L at Notre Dame that fall and was busy sending out job applications, as I’d spent my 2L summer working at a non-profit. I was a bit nervous about the future, naturally, but not unduly so. After all, I had good grades, went to a good school, had good extracurricular experience. And then the market crashed.

 So I swept up the pieces of my hopes and dreams and moved on, working in unpaid positions, then an internship, then on a campaign, and finally landed a legal job in the city of my dreams. During that seemingly interminable period in limbo, I began wonder if a traditional legal career in a law firm was really what I wanted. During the same time, many of my friends who did work in firms experienced profound disillusionment. That is not to say that I think working in a law firm is a bad idea, or that all people who are in law firms want out, or that I would never work in a law firm. This blog is simply a place to explore alternative career possibilities. 

 As it turns out, there are many people who would like to leave law firms or who are unsure whether they even want to go to a firm in the first place. But what other careers could you pursue, and how do you pursue them? That is the subject of my monthly columns for this blog. Each month, I will interview a woman who has pursued an unusual career path at some point in her career. If you have pursued an unusual career path and would like to discuss being interviewed, please e-mail me at If you have particular questions that you would like me to ask future interviewees, please send me an e-mail as well!

 This month’s interviewee is Erica Martin. She received her B.A. from UCLA in history and political science, and received her J.D. from George Mason. Prior to her present position, she worked as a Legal Policy Analyst at the Heritage Foundation and as an attorney for an energy company.

 Erica grew up in San Diego, California, where her dad has a small law firm. Her mother is a speech pathologist. She has two younger sisters, and a four-month-old niece, Whitney, “the cutest child who ever lived.” Erica is married to Kyle Martin, who is also an attorney.

 Erica works with International Justice Mission (IJM), which is a human rights organization in 13 countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. IJM focuses on providing legal assistance to people who are being exploited in ways such as slavery or sexual exploitation.

 Erica explains the mission of IJM:

 The work of IJM focuses on assuring that the public justice system works on behalf of the poor and oppressed. On a broad level, IJM works to promote the rule of law because it is the rule of law that assures the fair and humane treatment of the most vulnerable members of any society. The law protects the poor and disadvantaged from being exploited by members of society who have money, power, and influence.  IJM has field offices in countries that have good laws on the books but where for whatever reason those laws are not being enforced effectively. The laws provide the tools.

Our office works on the issue of bonded labour, which is a contemporary form of slavery. It’s condemned by the law and its commission carries criminal penalties.

 1. How did you wind up at IJM? Was this your first job out of law school, or did you have other positions before this one? Where has your career path taken you?

 I started my career in the law as a Legal Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation. I accepted the job there during the time that most 2L students are looking for summer associate positions. That was the point in time where I decided that my law career would not be a traditional one. In addition to loving my job, working during law school also gave me some financial freedom. Although I still have law school loans I was able to significantly reduce the amount that I needed by attending an excellent state school and paying some of the tuition myself.

After finishing law school I took the California Bar. My first job as a licensed attorney was as the most junior attorney in the environmental group of a large energy company in Southern California called Sempra Energy. I had the privilege of working with, and learning from, excellent and patient attorneys. In fact, it was my boss at Sempra that reminded me about the work that IJM does. He took a short term trip to Uganda to work on a project with Pepperdine Law School.  When he returned he shared that it was among the most satisfying three weeks of legal work that he’d ever participated in. Talking with him I learned that IJM partners in the same work in Uganda. I remember sitting in his office saying, “I would love to do a legal fellowship with IJM but I think the window for that type of job has passed.” One year later I moved to South Asia.

I applied for IJM with the encouragement of my boss who said, “As your boss I should tell you to stay here and work on your career, but I have a hard time believing that you would come back from that fellowship and regret it.” My husband was sold on it before I was, so we both applied for a fellowship and decided to pray about it.  We both wanted placements as legal fellows and so we asked for an office where two spots were available. They sent us to one of the offices in South Asia.

 2. Have you always been interested in working in the human rights area, or did this interest develop after you had already started your career?

 I never considered working in the area of human rights until coming to IJM.  What attracted me to IJM is the support for the rule of law.  The law codifies basic rights and the work that we do is to assure that everyone, no matter how poor or uneducated, receives the protections that the law provides. We’re not talking about rights that are emanating from some penumbras, we are talking about rights as basic as the freedom to live, move, and work where you choose; the freedom to decide when you want to eat and when you want to sleep.

 3. What is your day-to-day job like? What are your favorite aspects of your job? What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

 There are no two days that are the same, which is one of my favorite aspects of the job. It’s never boring! Also, there is so much room to make an impact – we work with very little in the way of legal precedent or administrative regulation, so we have freedom to explore significant systemic reforms that could make a huge difference.

The biggest challenges arise from the fact that the justice system is broken in so many places. The procedure is disjointed and overwhelmed, which results in long delays during the course of a trial. According to the advocates that I work with, each case takes an average of four years.  In addition there are many procedures which we take for granted in the U.S. that are missing here.  For example, there is no court reporter during trial. The testimony of a  witness is paraphrased by the judge and recorded by his clerk. This causes significant problems where a judge is transferred during the course of a trial and a new judge has only a brief, paraphrased statement with which to acquaint himself with the facts. Another office in South Asia recently felt the effects of this practice when the judge in one of their big cases was transferred just before judgment. The new judge did not have the benefit of hearing all the evidence, which had a huge impact on the acquittal that he handed down.

 4. In what ways is your job similar to traditional legal jobs? In what ways does it differ from traditional legal jobs?

 Just like a lawyer anywhere we still do research, manage a heavy caseload, sit through long meetings, and discuss strategy with our colleagues. It’s different because we’re working in a completely different legal environment without many of the tools that are available in the U.S.  It’s also different from any other job I’ve held because the work directly impacts the freedom of another human being and I get to know their names and see their faces.  Although I still sit in an office, in front of a computer  for 90% of the time, I know that on the other end of the work are people who have suffered or who are suffering a denial of freedom and for whom my team is advocating with government officials.

 5. What has been the most meaningful experience you've had at IJM?

 There are lots of incredible experiences and because of the sensitive nature of the work I can’t discuss some of them. One experience that really stands out is from the first trip that I took into the field. I went out to a village with a national advocate to help prepare some victims of bonded labour to testify at trial. These victims have five children, whom I got to meet. Because their trial had taken years to begin, some of the children had been born after their parents’ rescue from bondage. I wondered how different life was for the children born while their parents were in bondage and what consequences the oppression would have on their lives, as opposed to their siblings who were born free.  The impact of the work had five faces.

 6. If women are interested in pursuing a career with an organization like IJM, what steps do you recommend they take? Do you have any other advice for them?

 One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to allow yourself as much financial freedom as possible. The reality is that jobs in the non-profit sector generally don’t pay very well and they definitely don’t pay as well as a job in a law firm. For example, our fellowship with IJM is unpaid and we support ourselves through fundraising.  Being chained to heavy law school loans can force you to limit your job options.  Do whatever you can to limit the amount of debt that you have when you get out of law school. Working during law school is not for everyone, but living cheaply, looking for scholarships, or picking a school with lower tuition can really help.

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