Thursday, June 28, 2012

Student Spotlight: Leah Kang ’12

HNMCP: Given the range of clinic options available at Harvard Law School, why did you choose the Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP) and what hopes do you have around alternative dispute resolution as a process as a result of your project?

Leah Kang: Before law school I taught fifth grade in a public school in the Bronx for three years where I witnessed firsthand how the poverty and racial inequality that is structurally embedded in our political and legal system shaped my students’ lives and limited their opportunities.  I came to law school seeking a skill set that would allow me to challenge the unequal system in which my students lived.

When I took the Negotiation Workshop as a 1L, I learned, among many lessons, that there is a wide range of ways to think about the problems that lawyers come across and a wide range of skills we will need in order to approach them effectively. I enrolled in the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP) because I wanted to build on what I had learned in the Workshop.

I had taken other clinics at HLS and always loved the experience of working with actual legal issues and real clients. Still, most law school classes and clinics start with some baseline assumptions—they take for granted that a dispute has occurred and that a client needs an advocate to mediate between her and the system. While the experience of providing legal services for these clients had taught me invaluable lessons about the power of the attorney-client relationship, it had not always given me a chance to question the assumptions underlying the system itself.

HNMCP offered me an experience that I could not get with more traditional law school clinics. It pushed me to grapple with big ideas: how the underlying architecture of a system affects what later manifests in the form of legal problems, how to rigorously analyze problems to find their root causes, and how to think creatively about how we might imagine systems, and our world, differently. As someone committed to pursuing a public interest career combating structural inequality, the opportunity to engage in this kind of learning experience was thrilling.

HNMCP: How do you think this experience will inform your future work?

LK: Just before graduation, funding came through that will allow me to work next year at Advancement Project, a racial justice organization that engages in community-based solutions for systemic change. Their model recognizes that traditional litigation is just one of a lawyer’s many tools, and that successfully challenging injustice and inequality involves movement and coalition building, legal advocacy, and strategic communications. I know my HNMCP experience will be hugely informative in my future work with Advancement Project.

HNMCP: What was it about that the project with the Chilean Ministry of Justice that attracted you?

LK: I was attracted to the project because I knew it would be a challenge. The Chilean Ministry of Justice was working toward an incredibly ambitious goal of expanding access to justice through the implementation of a system of neighborhood multi-door courthouses. I was excited about the chance to help the Ministry tie the critical lens of dispute system design and ADR theory to the practical exercise of implementing its multi-door courthouses.

I was also eager for the challenge of working across cultural and linguistic contexts, particularly for a complicated government client. You leave the Negotiation Workshop thinking you understand interests and how to dig for them, but you definitely don’t really understand it until you have tried applying it to a real-world setting.

HNMCP: What have been the unexpected rewards and challenges of your project been?

LK: One of the most challenging, and definitely the most rewarding, parts of the HNMCP experience has been the task of working closely on a team of fellow law students. It was really challenging to figure out how to engage in a collaborative process toward a truly jointly created end product.  To be honest, as I have come to realize, few of my group project experiences before HNMCP had been genuine mutual efforts.

The other members of my HNMCP clinical team and I had very different styles, preferences, and strengths. It took a lot of time and energy to develop our team dynamic, but we worked really hard on it.  I am really proud of how we were able to come together. Law school can be an isolating place that emphasizes individual competition. This is unfortunate considering how much we will all need to engage in genuine teamwork and collaboration in order to effect the changes in our world that so many of us came to law school to fight for.

The HNMCP experience was a unique opportunity to really collaborate with a team of talented peers on a real-world project, and I am grateful I had the chance to be a part of it.