By Carissa Mulder • October 16, 2012•Nonprofits and the Public Interest
Hello! This month's interview is with Kutina Williams. Kutina reached out to me after reading this blog, and I am so happy she did! She's had a number of unique experiences and I think you'll find them very interesting. If you'd like to be featured on this blog, please contact me at email@example.com.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up, where did you go to undergrad and law school, etc.?
I was born in Beaufort, S.C. on the coast and grew up in Winnsboro, SC. I received my Bachelor of Science degree in Anthropology and Biology from Davidson College in 2002. I studied abroad in Zimbabwe, Australia, New Zealand, Mongolia and Madagascar while in college. I spent one year in Papua New Guinea after graduation to pursue a Davidson College fellowship. My research topic was cargo cults. I completed my legal studies at the Charleston School of Law and I am admitted to the South Carolina bar. My professional focus is on human and civil rights, women’s issues and elections.
Your first job out of law school was as a field organizer during the 2008 elections. How did your law degree help you in that role? What was the job like?
Immediately after I completed the South Carolina bar exam in July 2008, I moved to Union County, North Carolina to serve as head field organizer for the Campaign for Change. The job was challenging, but rewarding. It required me to recruit volunteers, organize the community for canvasses and phone banking, and to build cohesion between various groups towards campaign efforts. I enjoyed interacting with people the most. The work days were long and one of the biggest challenges was trying to build cohesion within the community which was deeply divided by race and socio-economic status. My advocacy training in law school prepared me well to take on the role of a field organizer interested in encouraging and convincing people to vote. My law background also bolstered my credibility as a leader.
What did your job as a diversity recruiter entail? What was the job like? What would you say to anyone who is considering joining a law school admissions office, either as a diversity recruiter or in another position?
Law school administration is one of the areas of law that new lawyers overlook when thinking about their law careers, but it is a great way to start out your legal career in order to take a breather after law school and still be connected with the law field. It also gives you a chance to get your thoughts together for future career plans, all while assisting current law students and law school hopefuls, which for me was very rewarding. As a diversity recruiter, I traveled all over the Southeast to colleges and universities speaking with ethnic minorities about the requirements for pursuing a career in the legal profession. Ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the legal profession; and law schools realize that in order to best serve the needs of clients, it’s important that they prepare a diverse group of legal practitioners able to fully understand the clients’ backgrounds. I would encourage those who are seeking jobs after law school to consider law school administration. Dedicating a few years in this area could also be helpful if you wanted to save funds and eventually take a year off to pursue work abroad. Furthermore, some areas of law school administration are not as demanding as others and you have more chances to pursue small professional development opportunities and to volunteer, compared to those in law firms.
Can you tell us about your work as an attorney with a Turkish NGO? What type of work did you do? What challenges did you face? What did you like and what did you dislike about that job?
I completed a law fellowship with Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly-Refugee Advocacy and Support Program in July. As a law fellow, I was responsible for providing legal counseling to clients from Afghanistan, Iran, and Somalia. My clients all had applications in the UNHCR’s Refugee Status Determination process. I conducted client interviews and provided legal counseling and on occasion I drafted legal arguments on their behalf for submission to UNHCR. The biggest challenges with this job was having to prioritize cases, which meant that sometimes I was only able to provide legal counseling and nothing more. I enjoyed researching country of origin information because it allowed me to learn about cultures in this area of the world. I enjoyed the most working with people to find solutions to their problems.
If someone wanted to find a job like the one you held with a Turkish NGO, what would you tell her to do and what should she consider?
Firstly, pursue these opportunities in law school, even if it’s for a semester. There are many NGOs globally looking for help, but landing an internship after law school is based a lot on what practical experiences you bring and internships can be very competitive even when unpaid. Try to talk with people who have performed fellowships and internships before with the NGO in order to learn if they were able to gain substantive practical experience and if the NGO has good leadership and is supportive. A supportive placement is important because you may find yourself with an organization that does not adequately train you or utilize your talents because they know that you will leave after some time.
You mentioned a number of other roles that you hold, such as teaching legal English to Turkish lawyers and observing elections. Can you provide more details about those jobs?
Making the decision to pursue pro bono human rights work abroad was a huge leap of faith. To sustain myself financially, while performing pro bono work, I have taught Legal English to Turkish lawyers part time with a language company that caters to professionals. There are many opportunities to teach English in Turkey and there is high demand for those with a legal background to teach Legal English. From time to time, I also serve as a volunteer international short term election observer with the U.S. Department of State and have observed elections in Azerbaijan and Georgia. The position requires semi-structured neutral observation before, during and after elections and you are a part of a mission of about 300-400 other observers from the Organization for the Security and Cooperation of Europe(OSCE) member countries.
Did you initially take the job with the Turkish NGO because you specifically wanted to do this type of work and it just happened to be an international position, or did you want to live abroad for a while and figured out how to make that happen?
I took the pro bono position with the NGO because I wanted experience working with clients of various cultural backgrounds and the chance to work within international human rights legal frameworks.
If someone wants to move abroad and use their legal training to make a living, what would you recommend she do and consider?
I believe that to be the most competitive you should seek out practical experiences in law school as I mentioned before. It is easier to find funding for opportunities in human rights law when you are in law school, as far as internships. There are many international NGOs looking for pro bono lawyers and they have postings regularly for law fellowships and internships. Often time funding is a problem after law school, so try combining your fellowship or internship with paid English teaching positions. There are countries that have many NGOs and many English teacher jobs, such as Thailand, Hong Kong, Cambodia, and Turkey. I would also recommend signing up for listservs and searching international human rights and development related job sites to find international legal opportunities. The Reliefweb, UNjobs, and Aidjobs websites are very helpful.
Anything else you want to add?!
The world is your oyster! If your passion is international law, especially in areas of human rights and development, then go for it. If you plan ahead you will be fine. In the meantime, be sure to provide services to non-profits in your local communities because such experiences will assist you in your endeavors abroad. While passing time in the US before I moved, I was active at my law school as diversity fellow and in the community with women’s issues and voting rights. Make sure that you become fluent in a second language, if you are not already. Being fluent in a second language will move your application up higher in the stack. If you have not already, produce a writing sample exploring a topic in your area of interest involving international law. NGOs ask for writing samples from internship, fellowship and job applicants, more often than not. Lastly, the internet has made networking 10 times easier, so don’t forget to use social media outlets such as Linkedin to your advantage. Good luck!