Law in Contemporary Society

A Second Trip: Critical Self-Examination and Hopes for Growth

Travelling to "Help"

The first time I moved to Africa I was 21 years old, unattached, and more idealistic than I am now. I was scared, as my mother was convinced I would die and my childhood pediatrician had lectured me for hours on things I could not eat in the Zambian refugee camp, but I also felt that the work was worth the risk. The CEO of the organization I had contracted with was fearless and clearly looked down upon nerves or hesitancy, so I held my questions about security and reminded myself I was going to “help.”

The camp was more dangerous than our CEO had let on. I found this out on my first day there when, on a bike ride to a tall hill where I would find cellphone service to tell my parents I had made it, I was chased by wild dogs and had to turn around. Our “guards” were actually hired by the UN to watch the property our compound was on, not us, so they were, to put it mildly, less dedicated (and sober) than I would have hoped.

Still, at least in the beginning, I naively thought we were helping people with our English classes and microfinance loans. When money was stolen out of our cash box or when I threw up and prayed it wasn’t Dengue, I maintained that it was all worthwhile for the refugee who could leave and get a job using new skills, or the woman who had the courage to part from an abusive husband against the community’s wishes.

Belly of the Beast

Ultimately, however, we made little impact. It has taken time for me to admit that because it seems to diminish everything that happened. The biggest thing to come from the experience was my change of heart. Lesson learned: it takes more than good will, a little money, and a few mzungus to change the course of a refugee camp. I did, nevertheless, see glimpses of the belly of the beast and those brutal visions, I have learned, are rare and valuable at conference tables full of development professionals. You cannot hope to effect change if you don’t understand why the change is necessary and what obstacles stand in your way.

When I left, I vowed to learn more before returning.

Travelling to Learn

I leave for Monrovia, Liberia in less than two weeks, which is likely why my last trip to Africa is top of mind. Though this trip is shorter, to a war-torn country on the other side of the continent, I can’t help but liken it to the return to the field I had anticipated three years ago. Yet, I do not feel ready.

After one year of law school, I feel further from knowing what shape my career will take. I left my job at a non-profit because I felt the focus on fundraising and donor cultivation was taking me in the wrong direction. However, if that position was leading me down the wrong fork, law school has taken me completely off track. While the courses have been intermittently stimulating, the only skill I have developed – as far as I can see – is the ability to memorize information and recognize when to regurgitate it on an exam.

I am extremely self-critical when thinking about my place in this line of work, because I have seen individuals in the field become burdens instead of assets while maintaining a “White Savior Industrial Complex,” as Teju Cole coined it. In response to the Kony2012 campaign, Cole wrote, “We must do such things only with awareness of what else is involved. If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.”

Having come to terms with the fact that, on my last assignment, I had more responsibility than my experience should have allowed and more authority in the camp than a just world demands, I hope this time to travel more honestly, acknowledging that it is more for myself than those I go to meet. And yet this feels selfish, and I struggle to find a balance. At the very least, I seek to do no harm.


I need to learn what the intersection of lawyering and peace-building looks like in other nations. I need to learn how to apply studied knowledge and critical thinking in the context of another’s culture. I am 25 years old, with a life in New York now, and I know I will not be taking any long-term assignments abroad in the next few years. However, I still feel passionately about my day job reflecting a cause I believe in, and my academic background and professional experience have taught me that if every minute eight under-five children die in sub-Saharan Africa, that should be my first priority.

Though I am lacking the growth of intellectual capacity and knowledge I aspired to before returning, I have experienced a growth in maturity. I am not blindly offering help by virtue of my presence, but doing my “due diligence” as part of my educational development toward a law degree.

As suggested in my First Paper, I realized early on that this year would demand a shift in focus. I no longer hope to learn our legal system to take it elsewhere. Rather, what the past few months and this class have taught me is that my focus should be on critical thinking and the optimization of the use of words and ideas to accomplish objectives. The day that Eben said that lawyering does not necessarily have to be about the law I felt I could finally exhale, as I have grown increasingly more aware that I feel little connection to the law and my future in it. At the same time, I am open to the ideas and conversations that float through our school and I now plan to selfishly pick through this education, absorb the parts I need, and set aside the rest.

-- By SherieGertler - 10 Jul 2012


I really enjoyed reading your post. I think reflecting on "why law" is healthy, if not necessary. From talking with others (and through my own self-reflection) I've gathered that very few people walk away from 1L year feeling ready to take on the world, or that they've learned any transferable skills. Perhaps, the light at the end of the tunnel is that by 3L year, through a careful selection of your courses (which you mentioned above) and experiences which you choose to involve yourself with, you will have come closer to finding the answer of how to use the law to build peace in other nations. While reading your post I wondered whether your dilemma was not simply the burden of the beast? When people like you obtain advanced degrees to work for the rights of others, so much is gained because you truly have your heart in the work. Although law school may seem pointless now, in time, I think the degree will allow you to sit at the table with some of the most powerful players in the world and/or work on the ground to create the type of change that you envision. -- AbiolaFasehun - 09 Jul 2012


Thank you for taking the time to read the post. I appreciate your point that perhaps the degree will afford me a seat at the table. At times I have felt guilty for considering the fact that such an expensive and time-consuming degree might be most valuable as a piece of paper, an admissions ticket, to certain positions and conversations that I would otherwise be excluded from. Still, if the end result is being effective in a field I find interesting and rewarding, I wonder if that matters.

I've been in Liberia almost 7 weeks now, and it turns out that writing this post was extremely helpful in forcing me to think through my objectives before arriving. I hope your summer experience has been rewarding as well - great to hear from you.

SherieGertler - 10 Jul 2012


Webs Webs

r5 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:15 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM