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South Africa Externship Provides Hands-On Legal Experience for StudentsSouth Africa Externship Provides Hands-On Legal Experience for Students

By Lori Atherton
April 2, 2015

3L Anne Recinos wants to provide direct legal services to migrants when she graduates in May, so it was important to her that she gain as much practical experience as possible during law school. She found the real-world experience she was seeking through Michigan Law's South Africa Externship Program.

Recinos spent three months with the Refugee Rights Clinic—the legal component of the Refugee Rights Unit at the University of Capetown—helping asylum seekers and refugees file their asylum applications. While some of Recinos's clients were applying for asylum for the first time, the majority had already filed their asylum applications and needed legal help in appealing a negative decision or, in some cases, a final decision that would have resulted in their getting deported.

"I met directly with clients and determined whether or not they had a viable asylum case," said Recinos, who visited South Africa during winter 2014. "If clients did have a viable asylum claim and had been rejected once or twice before, I had to provide written legal recommendations on their behalf, stating that they did fall under the definition of a refugee. It was a great experience to interview clients, get the raw information, and see how it fit into the refugee definition under South African law. There were people with very compelling, sympathetic stories, but they fit squarely outside the refugee definition and there wasn't much we could do to help them."

In several instances, Recinos had the opportunity to intervene on behalf of clients who had been granted refugee status but were being denied their rights. "Once a person is recognized as a refugee, they are given a document establishing their right to reside, work, get an education, and receive health care—everything on an equal basis as a citizen of South Africa," Recinos noted. "Often our clients had trouble asserting those rights and were told they didn't qualify for something, so I drafted memos to the organization—the housing authority or hospital, for instance—explaining under what provisions of South African law our clients had those rights as a recognized refugee."

Giving students the opportunity to put legal theory into practice at the placement of their choosing is what makes externships so beneficial, said Amy Sankaran, director of externships and pro bono programs. Aside from the South Africa externship, Michigan Law offers formal externships in Geneva and India; each enables students to supplement their classroom work with real-world experience at nonprofit organizations. Students can also immerse themselves in full-time and part-time externships at governmental agencies and with nonprofit organizations, throughout the United States and abroad.

"While students have two summers to try out legal employment, the externship gives them another chance to explore something they may not otherwise have time for," Sankaran said. "For example, if you spend your first summer at a nonprofit and your second at a firm, you would not have a chance to try government work, and an externship can give you that opportunity. Or perhaps you change directions after your first or second summer; an externship ensures that you get a chance to try your newly chosen field. I can't think of a single extern who told me they are sorry they did an externship."

For 2L Megan Pierce, who wants to pursue a career in international human rights law, the South Africa externship is an opportunity to learn more about the country's developing legal system. Since February, she has been working at the Constitutional Litigation Unit of the Legal Resources Centre in Johannesburg, which litigates constitutional issues before the Constitutional Court.

"I do a great deal of legal research and writing on domestic, comparative, and international law," Pierce said. "I've also done some field work, mostly dealing with the communities' right to water in rural areas. We have met with community members, taken affidavits, and prepared court papers and evidence. I've also attended several hearings at various courts, including the Constitutional Court, and am working on an amicus brief for a case at the Supreme Court of Appeals concerning refugee law."

Without hesitation, both Recinos and Pierce would recommend the South Africa externship to other students. "I learned a lot of substantive law in a short period of time," Recinos said. "There is a huge need for lawyers, so you're given a lot of responsibility, which can be intimidating, but you learn a lot of hard, practical skills in three months. It was by far my favorite semester of law school."

"Spending a semester doing hands-on legal work in South Africa is an invaluable experience, both personally and professionally," added Pierce. "I've had the opportunity to experience a new culture and see a new country, as well as learn about a new legal system. I'm able to make meaningful contributions to really rewarding work and have the opportunity to work on projects I wouldn't be able to work on as a law student in the United States. I also have learned a great deal about the American legal system by comparing it with the South African and other legal systems. I would definitely recommend the externship to everyone, not just students interested in human rights or international law."

Pictured in the banner photo, from left: Anne Recinos, 3L, Emily Suran, 3L, and Stephanie Westman '14, at the Constitutional Court in South Africa. Photo courtesy of Emily Suran.

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