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Public Interest Careers – Legacy of Apartheid

Each year, dozens of Yale Law School students and graduates apply for highly competitive fellowships in the U.S. and abroad. These experiences offer substantive, on-the-ground training for new attorneys and those seeking to shift practice focus. Fellows work in a range of settings—including nonprofits, government agencies, and international courts—gaining valuable contacts and experience that frequently serve as the foundation for a career in public interest work. Below is one graduate’s public interest story. You can see more stories here.

Matiangai Sirleaf ’08 
Robina Fellow
Clerk at the Constitutional Court of South Africa

Before she arrived for her first day of classes at Yale Law School, Matiangai Sirleaf ’08 had an interest in human rights law, particularly as it pertained to Africa. In 2004, following her college graduation from NYU, Sirleaf received a Fulbright Fellowship to Ghana, where she conducted research on transitional justice and earned a master’s degree in international affairs.

Her interest in human rights law grew during law school, when Sirleaf served as a student director of the Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic, Managing Editor of the Yale Journal of International Law, and student director of the Schell Center for Human Rights.

By the time she graduated from Yale Law School, Sirleaf was firmly committed to studying and working in the field of transitional justice. Her problem was that age-old one of how to secure a job without work experience.

“For human rights-minded law school graduates it can be difficult to get substantive experience; most of the jobs are looking for people with at least three to four years of work experience,” Sirleaf explains. “NGOs and other organizations just don’t have the capacity to train new employees and aren’t able to invest resources in someone fresh out of Law School.”

“Without the Robina or the Bernstein or some fellowship that enables you to get involved in human rights work it’s really just not possible to get that experience,” she says. “The opportunities in the human rights field in general are pretty limited but there is a lot of interest, so it’s very competitive. The deck is stacked against you in many ways. The Robina was great because it allowed me to build that experience right out of law school.”

As a student at YLS Sirleaf had become fascinated by the Constitutional Court of South Africa, and some of its ground-breaking decisions about socio and economic rights. She quickly learned that while the Court had an international law clerk program to which she could apply, the clerkships were unfunded. Her interest in the court likely would have ended there if it weren’t for the Robina Fellowship she applied for and secured.

“A lot of the other fellowships won’t fund international fellowships or clerkships—so the Robina really made clerking at the Court a possibility for me,” Sirleaf says. “I am very grateful for the Robina because I was able to learn a lot by working on the court—and I think my work was able to make an impact.”

As clerk to then Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo, Sirleaf was involved with the Court’s ongoing reforms to institutionalize the role of the chief justice and that of the judiciary. Sirleaf worked in the beginning phases of the project helping to conceptualize—through policy papers, research, comparative research, and task force meetings—a judiciary branch independent from South Africa’s executive arm. She also worked on a number of high-profile cases, researching issues surrounding the right to water (Mazibuko v. City of Johannesburg) and pardon power and victims’ rights (Ryan Albutt v. Centre for the Study of Violence and Others). In the Albutt case, Sirleaf had the chance to do in-depth research on a case that dealt with the legacy of apartheid and the truth and reconciliation committee.

“Alleged perpetrators had to come in front of an amnesty committee if they were accused of committing crimes during apartheid,” Sirleaf explains. “They could plead that they were following the dictates of the apartheid state and ask for amnesty. They could meet with their victims or victims’ family and explain their role and apologize. The issue was that there were a number of people who didn’t participate in that process. And a number of them were in jail and they wanted to seek pardon from the president. The Ryan Albutt case was about how that process should play out. The question was: do victims have a right to a hearing? Do victims have any say or input if the president is considering pardoning that person? Does the victim or victim’s family have a right to be heard?”

“It was very interesting because of the history of apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee,” Sirleaf continues. “There was kind of a feeling that victims have a right to truth and the right to know what was happening with this process—the right to at least be heard. I was also fascinated by how this differed from the pardon process in the U.S.”

Sirleaf’s judge wrote the opinion stating that victims are entitled to due process rights—that they should be granted the right to be heard before a presidential pardon of a perpetrator under apartheid.

“I thought that was pretty revolutionary!” says Sirleaf. “The case had a really big impact and it was the highlight of my time working on the court to be so involved with the research that went into the decision.”

Today Sirleaf is continuing to build her experience with another fellowship at the Washington, D.C., law firm Cohen Milstein where she works in the pro bono international human rights practice group. Most of the cases she helps litigate involve allegations of extrajudicial killings, torture, and trafficking in countries such as Columbia, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Iraq. “We practice in a number of districts within the U.S. I’m able to get substantive litigation experience in a number of different districts with a variety of different clients. And our cases are also in different stages—remediation, revving up for trial, the appellate level, in discovery—this is helping me learn a range of different litigation skills.”

Matiangai Sirleaf also worked in South Africa as a Bernstein Fellow following her graduation from Yale Law School. As a Bernstein Fellow, Sirleaf worked with the Liberia office of the International Center for Transitional Justice, doing a comparative study of transitional justice experiences in western Africa.

For more information about fellowship opportunities, visit www.law.yale.edu/studentlife/ylspublicinterestfellowships.htm.