Finding the right “fit”: My experience with the Young Lawyers International Program

  • February 13, 2020

My journey with the Young Lawyers International Program began a little over a year ago when I received a Facebook message from a friend (and now fellow YLIP intern – I owe you one, Katie) containing a link to the program’s webpage. I had not previously heard of this opportunity, and what seemed inconsequential at the time has become something significant.

Every year, YLIP provides the opportunity for lawyers and law school graduates to travel around the world and intern for organizations dedicated to advancing human rights, the rule of law, environmental protection, and access to justice. The project is managed by the CBA International Initiatives team and funded by Global Affairs Canada.

I made my way through the interview, selection, and placement processes. A few months later, I departed for Nairobi, Kenya. Now, four months into my placement with the Katiba Institute, I can say that my experience has been invaluable.

The primary aim of the Katiba Institute is to enhance the implementation of the Constitution of Kenya through research, education, litigation, and encouraging public participation. We are an office of around 15 individuals composed of the Programmes, Litigation, and Finance departments. I primarily assist the litigation team, a group of five lawyers, with more than 100 Public Interest Litigation files.

The Katiba Institute initiates its own files (as the petitioner) and participates in matters as an Interested Party or Amicus Curiae. The Constitution of Kenya is a comprehensive document, making the casework diverse and engaging, but often challenging. I have worked on matters relating to community land rights, forced evictions of informal settlements, public participation in the extractive sector, victim compensation following terrorist attacks, and transparency in appointments to the judiciary and other constitutional commissions.

This experience has allowed me to develop my legal skills in a unique environment, draft submissions for every level of court (including the Supreme Court of Kenya), gain confidence in legal research and writing, and learn from some incredible lawyers about strategic litigation and techniques for successful advocacy. I have also seen the parallels between the work that I am doing here and discussions occurring in Canada surrounding the balancing of constitutional rights, the extractive industry and climate change, and the rights of Indigenous communities.

Beyond these practical skills, I have also engaged in a process of recognizing and challenging my biases, looking critically at my role in society, and rethinking the ways in which governments and institutions view development and progress.

I echo the CBA in saying that adaptability, proactivity, active listening, and a sense of humour are indispensable for YLIP interns. I would add that a sense of adventure, ability to take initiative, and a desire to be pushed outside of one’s comfort zone are keys to success.

If I had to distill my takeaways into a sentence, this would be it: Challenge the status quo, hold those in power accountable, be creative and strategic in your legal arguments, and use the privilege that comes with having a legal education  to give a voice to those who face barriers to being heard in society.

Every placement is unique, so I can only speak to my experiences, but I am fortunate to have finally found the “fit” that I had heard so much about in law school.

Jessica Dawkins earned her JD from the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in 2019.

Applications for the 2020-21 YLIP program are now open.