There are always gaps in what we’ve covered on the blog, and I regret that I haven’t written enough (or asked others to write enough) about the LL.M. program.  This year I had heard talk around the office about a student who is very active in the community, so I reached out to Marlene Houngbedji to ask for her reflections on the program.  Her thoughts on being an LLM student follow, rounding out a week when we have already heard from a graduate and a professor.

Marlene HA doorway to major changes opened when I was admitted to the Fletcher School’s LL.M. program.  My rather colorful pre-Fletcher professional journey had kept me away from the legal world for a long period.  I had therefore been seeking a program that values international backgrounds while reinforcing prior (might I say: outdated?) knowledge of public international law.  Although it feels like I started classes a mere few weeks ago, my first semester, the winter break and even a two-day New York career trip surreptitiously elapsed while I was busy being studious, and we’re already in our third week of the spring semester.

The time is therefore ripe for a mid-year assessment of my Fletcher post-graduate venture.

Balancing academic and professional goals

For me, acquiring experience in case law, and studying international law with a U.S. perspective are some of the program’s most valuable features.  Not only does Fletcher’s LL.M. program cover a broader international legal range than other U.S. LL.M. programs to which I had considered applying, but it also offers students trained in civil law exposure to the common law system.  I indeed find it fascinating to compare how universal legal concepts are interpreted from one system to the other.  Some of my classmates and I never missed post-lecture opportunities to assail Professor Cerone with comments and questions on why legal theory is so different in the U.S., which made for quite heated yet entertaining fall-semester discussions!

The small number of students in the program permits frequent interactions with our faculty, which in turn, makes it easy to receive personalized guidance on course choices and professional goals.  In speaking of the latter, our recent Office of Career Services-sponsored trip to New York introduced those of us interested in the legal profession to the UN Office of Legal Affairs (codification division) and to UN Women, dedicated to gender empowerment, among other organizations.  Learning about the types of careers available to students of a discipline as abstract as international law has most definitely helped me choose my second semester classes accordingly.

I was not sure what to expect from world class faculty and my fellow students last semester, nor did I have a definite idea of what, as the recipient of a foreign law degree, was expected of me.  Though I had decided what area of international law would become my field of expertise before applying to the Fletcher School, the variety of courses from which I could choose triggered a moment of panic.  For a few days after classes began, it seemed that in picking classes in each division, to fulfill the breadth requirement, I was set to study topics with little to no relevance to traditional legal training.  Apples and oranges in an academic setting.

Creating a personalized curriculum

The breadth of options turned out to work to my advantage, however, as it allowed me to tailor my curriculum to my academic and professional needs, while remaining within the requirements of the LL.M. program.  My interest in human rights, protection of vulnerable groups in conflicts, and refugees’ and women’s issues prompted me to choose Professor Hannum’s International Human Rights Law, Professor Cerone’s International Humanitarian Law, Professors Mazurana and Stites’ Gender in Complex Humanitarian Emergencies, and to cross-register for a course in international refugee law at Harvard Law School.  A corresponding practical apprenticeship at the Boston branch of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic doubled my course load, but the privilege of working on gender asylum cases added a real-life component to theory and increased my familiarity with the U.S. judicial system.

This was how I was able to understand how seemingly unrelated disciplines and course content can reconcile into a multi-faceted perspective on law.  By graduation, I will have learned to legally analyze human security through gender and economic lenses, and to paint a legal triptych comprising human rights, humanitarian, and refugee law panels with gendered shades and nuances.

As it turns out, apples and oranges do mix, sometimes…

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