In this interview, Reed Smith Trainee Stephanie dicusses her experience completing Pro Bono projects. She details the reason for choosing this placement, her experience so far and what she has enjoyed most about her time there.
Why did you choose to do the pro bono secondment?
A few years ago, I watched a documentary called 'Fourteen Days in May'. Filmed over two weeks in May 1987, it documents the countdown to the execution of Edward Earl Johnson for a crime he did not commit. Edward's ordeal and the sheer injustice of his story really stuck with me. I became acutely aware of the manifold issues surrounding the use of the death penalty, both in the USA (where Edward's execution took place) and across the globe. Issues which persist today, 33 years on. Interestingly, the young lawyer in the film - who fought to save Edward's life right up until the moment of his execution - is Reprieve's founder, Clive Stafford Smith.
As Reed Smith trainees, we're spoilt for choice when it comes to secondments. But having the chance to undertake human rights work while training at a City law firm struck me as a particularly special opportunity. Challenging injustice has always been important to me, and to be able to do so from within two powerhouse NGOs like Liberty and Reprieve is a real privilege.
What organisation are you currently at and what sort of work have you been getting involved in?
I'm currently at Reprieve, working in the MENA Death Penalty team. The majority of the work I've been involved in has focused around violations of international law in relation to the imposition of the death penalty and other state-sponsored human rights abuses, mainly in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Over the past three months, I have had the opportunity to draft submissions to several different UN bodies on issues ranging from arbitrary detention to the rights of children whose parents have been sentenced to the death penalty. I have also drafted case briefings, compiled detailed case chronologies, and participated in a number of advocacy planning meetings.
What have you enjoyed most about the secondment?
Above all, it's been incredibly motivating and rewarding to know that the work you're undertaking has such an essential objective. The range of cases I have worked on has also been stimulating – I know much more about Bahraini domestic law now than I ever thought I would and I've researched memos on topics I wouldn't have imagined. I've been given significant amounts of responsibility and autonomy, which I really appreciate and have thoroughly enjoyed. The Reprieve staff are wonderful, too; they're very vocal in showing their appreciation for the work you're doing and I've felt like a valued member of the team since day one.
Would you recommend the pro bono secondment to other trainees? Why?
Without a doubt. This secondment is such a unique opportunity to assist with incredibly meaningful work and to be part of a really supportive, inspiring network of passionate people. I've gained significant research and drafting experience over the past three months through engaging the various UN mechanisms and have also had rare exposure to highly-respected human rights experts. I cannot overstate how valuable these experiences have been to both my personal and professional development.
How has your experience been so far, especially considering that you have had to adjust to remote working?
These are strange times for everyone. Remote working went from being 'the exception' to 'the norm' within a matter of days. This seat rotation started at the beginning of March, so I was able to spend two weeks in the Reprieve office before the social distancing measures came into place. Sadly, my time at Reprieve will end before the measures do and I will be starting at Liberty remotely.
Fortunately, Reprieve is a very collaborative organisation so I've been in regular contact with my team via Zoom meetings. There's also a weekly casework meeting with around 40 participants across several different continents, all convening on one video call. Despite the obvious challenges associated with not being physically present with my colleagues, I have made some lasting friendships (due in no small part to virtual coffee catch-ups and WhatsApp). I think in times like these you just have to adapt and stay positive!
What are you most looking forward to at Liberty?
Liberty and Reprieve are very different organisations, which is part of what makes the secondment so appealing. While Reprieve is focused on international human rights law, Liberty's work centres more on public law and human rights within a UK context.
In the middle of a public health emergency, Liberty's role is more important than ever. The pandemic has already raised some important questions about our civil liberties, particularly in relation to police powers, secret surveillance and data privacy. It's an exciting time to be joining the team and I'm looking forward to being on the front line of these issues over the coming months!
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