My journey to law school began in November, 2018. That's when I began studying for the LSAT, studying fours hours every morning before going to work. I did this for about five months, then I broke my arm two weeks before the test. That day, I awkwardly, but frantically, flipped through the pages as I watched the clock ticking away faster than I'd ever seen a clock tick before. But, my hard work paid off, and next came the long application process. By this point, I was working two jobs in anticipation of beginning law school the following year. After months of waiting, I finally got in to William & Mary, my dream school. A few months after that, I packed up all my belongings and made the 42 hour drive from Santa Barbara, California to Williamsburg, Virginia, my trusty Honda Fit slowly chugging me across the country with a U-Haul hitched to the back.
And now, I'm here. One year into my studies as a law student, and two weeks into my first legal job. It's been a long journey.
If there's one thing I can say with certainty about this first year, it is that being a law student during a global pandemic has presented some uniquely challenging experiences.
As I enter into my first legal job, I can say this too: being a first year summer intern for an organization based in Johannesburg while working remotely from Williamsburg does too.
When I first heard about the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa, I was immediately drawn to its mission and values. ISLA is a feminist and pan-African organization, based on the belief that strategic litigation is an immensely strong tool for social change, because it helps to reframe our understanding of rights under the law. ISLA operates under different thematic umbrellas, such as Violence Against Women, Sexual Rights, Women's Socio-Economic Rights, and Practices and Procedures, with the main goal of advancing women's and LGBTQ+ human rights domestically and internationally. While they are based in Johannesburg, South Africa, ISLA's work spans borders and relies on networks of partnerships to litigate, provide support to litigation, track human rights abuses, and develop appropriate responses to influence jurisprudential and legislative decision making for social change.
If someone had told me the term "strategic litigation" about one year ago, I probably would have looked confused.
However, over the course of my learning this year, I have come to understand this concept through the work of Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. These former Supreme Court Justices participated in strategic litigation years before they sat on the bench, deliberately and particularly pursuing cases that fundamentally changed the way that racial and gender discrimination is viewed in the courts.
This is the work that ISLA undertakes.
As I have settled into my first couple of weeks, I am learning to navigate a whole new aspect of remote working and legal research that I did not have during the school year. After spending an entire year learning how to use different legal research databases, like WestLaw and Lexis, and Bluebook citation rules, I am now wading through a world of international legal research that is totally new to me. I am not only looking up case law from South Africa, but any African jurisdiction that might be applicable. My first work assignment has me researching evidentiary rules in sexual assault cases across jurisdictions. The purpose of this assignment is to support ISLA's application to file an amicus brief in a Kenyan court. These rules are based on archaic concepts from as far back as 1600s in England, and were directly inherited from English common law. In the past couple of decades, several African countries have reformed, and even outright abolished, these rules, recognizing the harmful impact they have on survivors of sexual assault. As I complete this assignment, I have had to venture outside of the familiar confines of WestLaw, Lexis, and the Bluebook. After a slow and confusing first day, I have been able to compare case law and legislation across countries like Namibia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, South Africa, and Gambia. It has been a thrill to be able to use my French again as well, as I haven't had too much opportunity this year, though it is an utterly new experience to use it in the legal context.
As I adjust from being an online student to online intern, I am entering into an entirely new world of unknown. And I can't wait to see what else I learn this summer.