Sunday, July 3, 2011

Student Spotlight – Sonjia Vallabh ’11


Given the range of clinic options available at Harvard Law School, why did you choose the Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP)?

I’ve already been involved with the ADR program at the law school, through the Harvard Mediation Program and the Negotiation Workshop, so I knew what I was signing up for when I chose the HNMCP clinic. I knew that it would be a supportive and stimulating environment, and that I would like the people, and that it would involve a different kind of work and thinking than the rest of my courses. I’ve tried to take a skill-building approach to my time at HLS, so one thing that really appealed to me about this clinic was that I would get to try working as a consultant: managing client relationships, diagnosing their system, and designing and presenting a final product.

What was it about that the Bulgaria project that attracted you?

Having spent a lot of time with the Harvard Mediation Program at HLS, the idea of analyzing a court-annexed mediation program in such a different cultural setting was intriguing. And the prospect of getting a chance to travel to Bulgaria also didn’t hurt!

What have you found most challenging about the work?

I would say the biggest challenge has been trying to package our project into a semester-long time line. I suppose it’s a common property of consulting work generally that you can’t count on knowing the client’s organization inside and out before suddenly it’s time to start making recommendations. I see this as a stark contrast with strictly academic work at HLS, where obsessive thoroughness is more the norm. There is a certain efficiency/bottom-line to real world work which I value but which is also challenging to adapt to at first.

What have the unexpected rewards been?

I think one major reward has been the gratitude with which all of our work has been received. Our clients are devoted to improving their mediation center, but they’re also crazy busy. I think it would have been difficult for them to find the time to do a comprehensive review on their own. So even relatively simple tasks that we are able to do for them—researching other mediation centers, cataloging the program’s resources—feel like a huge help.

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

I’ve considered working in consulting as one option for the future, and I think the analytical tools we developed in the clinic would be very apt to that setting. More generally, I think that there’s real value to coming in from the outside and looking at a workplace from a systems perspective. Sometimes it’s easier to see patterns, or inefficiencies, or room for improvement in a new context than in your own life or work. But hopefully you bring some of these insights back with you. I also think that opportunities to work on a team are few and far between in law school, but incredibly valuable going forward. One of my major goals for the future is to work with people, which sounds simple, but it’s actually not such an easy priority to meet in many professional settings. HNMCP really caters to this interest.  Working closely with Stephan (Sonnenberg) and Emil (Andersson) has been great—the clinic is very deliberate and thoughtful about what makes for effective teamwork, which is a sensibility I hope to take with me into my professional life.

Prior to coming to HLS, Vallabh worked in publishing in San Francisco. She has spent the last three years focusing on alternative dispute resolution, and land use and environmental law. Outside of school, she loves cooking, bookstores, cities, and being outside. One of her greatest accomplishments in life so far is getting eight hours of sleep every night of law school.