I first came across Notre Dame’s LLM in International Human Rights late last year when an Indian law graduate made it to the course. What caught my attention, at first, was the fact that this particular individual was offered a complete waiver on the tuition fees, a very generous offer by any means.

Clearly, this was one law school (or at least program) that was willing to walk the talk when it comes to attracting international LLM students. A bit more research on the course itself has led me to believe that this is a program well worth considering for the Indian law graduate interested in human rights lawyering. A conclusion I based on multiple multiple reasons, some of which I discussed with Assistant Professor and director of the program’s student services, Sean O’Brien, in the interview below.

The LLM on International Human Rights is a very, very interesting program.

Sean O"Brien/University of Notre Dame
Sean O”Brien/University of Notre Dame

It is a one-year LLM program whose focus is exclusively on human rights law. For thirty years now, we have maintained that focus. We have a wide, and deep curriculum on human rights, much more so than any other American law school. We offer courses relating to public international law, the history of the foundations of human rights, regional human rights mechanisms related to America, Europe, Africa, and several sub-regional systems, like the ASEAN.

One more course I would highlight is the intensive trial advocacy course, a program we are nationally known for. A number of our LLM students participate in this course along with the JD students.

Also, our law school is physically located right at the heart of the university. I am surrounded by other departments in which our students can, and are encouraged, to take courses at. These courses count towards their LLM degree.

I need to clarify though, that the classes need to be connected somehow to their formation as a human rights lawyer. So, we have students taking courses in the business school related to the global supply chain. Or the UN global compact. Again, those are not necessarily or only connected to human rights, but they can inform and deepen the understanding of a lawyer on how corporations work, their governing structures, and what are their obligations both at the domestic and international level.

Are you looking for lawyers with a few years work experience?

We have a range of experience in our program. There are some lawyers who have graduated from law schools that provide a lot of clinical opportunities. So, some of our students are very recent graduates, maybe a year out but have significant experience working as a lawyer in clinical opportunities while in law school.

Academic performances for those students will be critical right because that is really all that they have to show as far as their potential for impact – how much did they engage with their academic courses and with human rights related clinics while in law school.

But then we also have lawyers who have been working in the field of human rights, and they have been doing that for three or five years. And in order to take that next step to, perhaps, a leadership position, they need not only the credential but the academic knowledge and the exchange of experiences with lawyers from around the world that our program can provide.

We have lawyers who were working in government, incorporating a human rights perspective in private practice, representing corporations to make sure they fulfil their human rights obligations. There isn’t just one image of a human rights lawyer that we stick to here at Notre Dame.

“We have lawyers who were working in government, incorporating a human rights perspective in private practice, representing corporations to make sure they fulfil their human rights obligations. There isn’t just one image of a human rights lawyer that we stick to here at Notre Dame.”

Coming to the LLM application – when should one start preparing?

The application is due on the first of April, but I do begin reviewing applications and making offers of admission before that. It behooves the applicant to submit her application as soon as possible and what I mean by that is that soon as possible after the first of January. This just increases your chances of receiving a scholarship.

We do have a significant scholarship funding to cover tuition, and a limited amount of funding to assist students with some of their living expenses. And the sooner you submit your application, the more likely you are to receive that scholarship support.

All applicants are considered for scholarships. I would encourage applicants to put their applications together in a way that tells their story, their desire for impact, and the admissions committee will handle it from there.

Any advice on say, the Letters of Recommendation? 

It is important to find the right recommenders who can speak about your very specific strengths as a lawyer. They should not only speak about your academic qualifications and your ability to succeed in the classroom here at Notre Dame, but also people who can speak to the applicant’s potential for impact as a human rights lawyer.

Also, it would be important for the recommenders to speak about the same kind of things that the applicant herself speaks about in her application.

How do you think one should approach the personal statement?

The personal statement does take time for reflection, for drafting and for re-drafting. The personal statement should be where the applicant tells her story, explains what motivates her to be a human rights lawyer.

It should help the admissions committee understand why this degree at Notre Dame in particular can be a transformative experience for her as a human rights lawyer. What is it about our program, about an LLM in human rights law that will help her take the next step in her trajectory as a human rights lawyer?

“The personal statement should help the admissions committee understand why this degree at Notre Dame in particular can be a transformative experience for her as a human rights lawyer. What is it about our program, about an LLM in human rights law that will help her take the next step in her trajectory as a human rights lawyer?”

One of the aspects that I found interesting about this course was the additional internship that is offered after students graduate.

We have an alumni network of more than four hundred human rights lawyers working in over a hundred countries. This network is critical for our program in a couple of ways including helping place our students in post-graduate internships.

After they graduate in May, I would say at least half of our students go on to seek human rights related internships. They choose this to broaden their experiences, to perhaps move from working at a national level, to working or an organization that has a regional view.

One of our lawyers from India, for example, is now working at the Khmer Rouge trials in Cambodia. That experience will allow her to develop some skills as a prosecutor and increase her ability to seek employment in the UN system – her end goal.

We have been able to help students get internships at places like that because we have a long line of students who have interned at these organizations and have impressed their employers. So, [the organizations] are happy to receive interns from our LLM programs – this would be true in places like the Khmer Rouge trials, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights, the International Commission of Jurists, or the UNHCR.

Our alumni also help our students feel that they are a part of a network of human rights lawyers across the world. When you graduate from Notre Dame Law School, you don’t just graduate with a degree or a title, you graduate with a network.

“Our alumni also help our students feel that they are a part of a network of human rights lawyers across the world. When you graduate from Notre Dame Law School, you don’t just graduate with a degree or a title, you graduate with a network.”

Our alumni share experiences, share information about what works and what does not work in combatting different human rights violations. They also share strategies and form networks to address particular issues.

Moving on to the JSD program – any advice for students who may be considering this after the master’s course?

 Our JSD program has had a traditional focus on human rights law, although we are now accepting JSD applications on topics that go beyond human rights. However, our scholarship support is currently directed at students who focus on human rights law.

Most of our JSD students have completed an LLM from different institutions. So, our LLM program is not a direct entrance to our JSD program.

Students who are seeking a JSD should spend significant time on our website to find a faculty member who would be a good match as a supervisor. They should also consider reaching out to such a faculty member and I can help facilitate those connections.

Final question, and one not directly connected to the program – what got you to take the LLM at Notre Dame?

After I finished my undergraduate studies, I worked as a volunteer at the US southern border. That was also a time of great legislative action on the issue of immigration.

Inspired by that experience, I lived for a year and a half in Honduras and experienced first-hand the conditions that were forcing Hondurans and other central Americans to leave their countries and seek safety from violence.

That is how I came to Notre Dame Law School, precisely because it had a focus on human rights law. I took human rights courses during my JD, and then stayed on for a year for the LLM which was exclusively on human rights law. This prepared me to work as human rights lawyer.

“That is how I came to Notre Dame Law School, precisely because it had a focus on human rights law. I took human rights courses during my JD, and then stayed on for a year for the LLM which was exclusively on human rights law. This prepared me to work as human rights lawyer.”

I then worked for a non-profit law firm that litigated cases for inter-American human rights, and then as an immigration and an asylum attorney. I provided legal immigration services, essentially facilitating the asylum applications of torture survivors, and helping them maintain refugee and other legal status here in the United States.

During that work I received the offer to come back to my alma mater, to direct the program that had directly formed me, and that had prepared me for my work. It was an offer that I could not refuse (laughs).

 

End Notes

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