Law Internship in Ghana
Law students test human rights knowledge in Africa
September 21, 2012
The image of two-hour commutes on a full bus to get to a law firm conjures thoughts of working in Washington, D.C. For four law students, though, this was just one part of Ghanaian daily life they experienced during the University’s first-ever human rights internship program in Africa.
Jon Stubbs, professor of law, first saw the need for such a program in the mid-1990s, when students in his human rights course began looking for practical experience in the field.
“My initial response was to simply direct them to established human rights organizations, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, or to try to use my personal contacts,” he says. “It was frustrating to see students coming to law school with great idealism and wanting to do good, and not to have more to offer them. It occurred to me that there was more that could be done.”
In 2011, Stubbs was invited to participate in a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) delegation in Accra, Ghana, led by Amii Omara-Otunnu, UNESCO chair of human rights for the U.S., and professor of history at the University of Connecticut. He used the opportunity to explore the possibilities for a human rights internship. “We have an international education department, we have a vibrant law school, we have students who were interested,” he says. “It seemed like all we needed was a place were a program could be initiated, and there would be some rich educational opportunities for our students.”
This past summer, Stubbs and four students finishing their first year of law school—Brittney McClain, Mason Husby, Danielle Wingfield, and Alex Sutherland—traveled to Accra for a five-week internship program. After one week of orientation led by Irene Odotei, president of the Ghana Historical Society, each student was placed with an organization that matched his or her field of interest.
Husby was placed with Law and Development Associates (LADA), a non-governmental organization specializing in human rights advocacy training that is operated by Raymond Atuguba, a professor at the University of Ghana School of Law and a lecturer at Harvard University. Husby assisted Atuguba with a presentation and legal research for a training manual for a workshop on education policy in Ghana. “The experience made me realize that a law degree is more than just a courtroom practice or just writing wills or just doing taxes,” he says. “Advocacy and helping enable people to get what they need, that’s something that a lawyer does, but there are many ways to do that that don’t necessarily involve passing the bar and standing in a courtroom. There are other social justice issues that you can work on with that degree and it does help.”
Wingfield, who has long been interested in working in international family law, jumped at the chance to work with the Human Rights Advocacy Center (HRAC), a law firm that provides legal services to indigenous populations while also tackling national political issues. Wingfield assisted with divorce and domestic violence clients, as well as a case going before the Supreme Court to determine the rights of LGBTQ people in Ghana. “I was not only trying to deal with legal issues, but the basic human rights and needs,” she says. “My reason for going into the legal field was because I wanted to speak for people who couldn’t speak for themselves, and advocate for people who aren’t able to articulate for what they need and why they need it.”
While the experience offered students the chance to gain practical experience in a legal environment, they also learned about Ghanaian culture and its influence on the country’s legal system, which combines its recently ratified constitution, colonial law imported from Britain, and customary tribal law.
“The laws are so intermingled and intertwined with the culture,” Wingfield says. “You have to take what you learned at dinner and on your walk to the market to figure out why the issues are what they are, and why they deal with these issues. It was challenging.”
The complexities of Ghanaian law even raised questions about the American legal system. “I allowed me to wake up to different possibilities or understand that things can be done differently,” says Husby, who worked with LADA. “By practicing with that lens as an outsider, I was able to turn back to the system in the U.S. and say, ‘Why are we doing it this way?’ It helps me to not approach our laws as dogmatically.”
Danielle Wingfield also left with renewed passion for international family law, and her ability to influence change. “I know I can’t change the world, and I can’t change where I am in one trip,” she says. “I did leave knowing that I contributed a little something, but that I probably gained even more.”