International Law Week #7

Today, we take a quick moment to return to last week’s focus on international law opportunities at our law school with an interview with one of our recent alumni, Sarah Mielke. Sarah is currently working for the US State Department, and, as she details below, she took advantage of a great many of our international law offerings during her time at W&L Law. She even spent the summer after her second year working for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria and Nairobi, Kenya. Click here to read more about Sarah’s summer experiences.

Last week, we sent Sarah a few questions about her current position and how her experiences at W&L Law shaped her professional path. Her responses are below.

What are you currently doing?

I am working as the Piracy Officer for the UN Political Office for Somalia, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

How did you get that job?

My ‘real job’ is at the State Department in DC, where I run the US’s Rule of Law and Corrections programs for Pakistan. I was initially hired through the Presidential Management Fellowship, so as part of my job, I have the opportunity to take short, temporary assignments (3-4 months) to almost anywhere in the world. I helped the UN Office of Drugs and Crime launch their Counter Piracy Programme during law school – I’ve maintained contact with the Programme Coordinator, and he suggested this would be an exciting opportunity.

What does your average day look like?

My time with the State Department has been action packed. During my assignment here with the UN in Kenya, I have produced a report for the UN Security Council, helped secure the release of 14 hostages with a complicated repatriation issue, and am currently working with Somali officials to help declare the Exclusive Economic Zone off their coast, which will expand their jurisdiction for the purposes of curbing piracy, combatting illegal fishing and dumping, and enforcing environmental regulations. In the near future, it looks like I will be helping draft an agreement to construct a pirate prison in Somalia, and conduct criminal justice assessments in Comoros and Mozambique.

As part of my permanent position in DC, my days are filled with everything from writing talking points for senior officials, to briefing Congress, visiting prisons in Pakistan, developing projects with the UN in Islamabad, and discussing possibilities for gender justice programs based on our experiences in Afghanistan. I manage approximately $20 million dollars in foreign assistance money, so my time is always full.

What’s your favorite thing about your current job?

I am absolutely in love with my work, but the best part of the job by far has been the people I’ve met and with whom I have the privilege to work. Those I get to count as friends include someone who helped manage the South Sudan referendum for statehood, one of General Petraeus’s 12 advisors in Afghanistan, the US point of contact for the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, and someone fighting drug cartels in Colombia. Not only is conversation never dull, but I have endless people and places to visit and am constantly challenged with new ideas and perspectives.

Did you have any international experiences during your time in law school? If so, how did they prepare you for what you are doing currently?

During my time at W&L, I took every single international opportunity I could weasel my way into, and there were many – classes, extra-curriculars, practicum courses with travel components, journal experiences, and summer placements. Before law school, my only international experience was an undergrad semester abroad, but by the end of my three years at W&L, I was a stand-out candidate for a position in international law and development work.

Did you take any of the international law classes during your time at W&L? If so, how did they prepare you for what you are doing currently?

I took almost every international law class W&L had to offer. The academics  – both in the intricacies of international law, and basic competencies such as writing, issue spotting, and critical reasoning – gave me a good foundation for my job, but the experiences and relationships I gained from W&L are what really prepared me for this profession. I had the opportunity to do hands on work in
the field that had a genuine place on my resume, and my professors made sure I was linked in with top people in my field of interest – some of whom I now work with in my position at State.

What would you tell a student interested in international law who is considering W&L?

International law is a small field that rewards actual experience and strong relationships. No school can hand that to you, but if you’re willing to aggressively pursue a career in the field, W&L absolutely provided me the opportunities I needed to land a cutting edge job with the type of international legal components that interested me.

If you could tell a prospective one thing (or a few things) about W&L Law, what would you tell that student?

You have to go to a school that’s the right fit – W&L or otherwise –  but I think it’s easy to let the US News rankings dictate what ‘fits’. Obviously going to a good school is important, but beyond good academics, W&L is a place where you will build real relationships – both with professors and fellow students. Whether it’s Friday afternoon rec football and beer, frantically cramming for a 1L contracts exam, traveling to Liberia over Thanksgiving, or going to a conference in DC – these people will become your colleagues and hopefully your friends. Lexington is a small town and W&L will be your family. It’s easy (and good) to focus on grades during your time at school, but in the broader scheme of things, the relationships will likely matter more. W&L pushed me hard, but I also had a ton of fun, a full social life, and came to know so many people whom I will count as friends throughout life.

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