It is relatively unusual, says Emma Lindsay (Balliol, 1998) on a phone from Manhattan, for law firms to place an equity partner into a role with a significant pro bono component, but by doing just that Withers has set something of a precedent that may be followed by peer firms. Emma is their inaugural Global Pro Bono Practice Leader.
Pro bono, short for pro bono publico, means for the public good of course, and involves providing free legal services to those in need. It is a widely accepted part of any legal practice. But it tends to be a small part of a law firm lawyer’s professional existence rather than as much as half, as will be the case for Emma.
A well-established, leading light in International Arbitration and Public International Law, Emma was born in Hong Kong, travelled around a lot as a child, then back to the UK for school and hence to Balliol. Her law degree was followed by an LLM in international law from New York University School of Law, a stint with a human rights organisation in Geneva and then with in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and eventually back to the US where she has now worked for two decades as an international lawyer and at international law firm Withers since 2018.
She has worked extensively with the Clooney Foundation for Justice and (see picture) refers to Amal Clooney as a ‘dear friend.’ She sits on the Foundation’s Board and cites recent work documenting human rights abuses in Venezuela, which has been shared with the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Another pro bono collaboration has involved Emma participating in a legal task force convened by the Ukrainian government to advise on accountability for Russian war crimes. ‘I am privileged to be part of the task force and to contribute, with the tremendous support of my firm, to efforts to hold perpetrators accountable’ she notes.
She offers that despite the UN Security Council being compromised by Russia’s veto power, ‘the General Assembly can take quite an active role and has done, with a series of landmark resolutions already passed, including a call for Russia to pay war reparations to Ukraine.’
‘It is an interesting and unusual situation. Historically the prosecution of war crimes has followed the end of a conflict, but here we have a situation where the processes have begun concurrently with the conflict. What has happened so far is amazing, viewed legally.’
The ICC arrest warrants issued in March 2023 for both Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s so-called Commissioner for Children’s Rights are, she concedes, to a degree ‘symbolic’, yet they ‘have a practical weight as well given that Putin cannot easily travel now to the 123 member states without risking arrest and transfer to The Hague.’
Emma’s law firm has a Russia, Ukraine and CIS practice, she says, which as for many law firms with practices in the region can present complexities in the current environment. ‘Our work for Ukraine is indicative of our overall stance [on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine],’ she adds.
March 2023 also saw an important breakthrough in another area of Emma’s pro bono legal practice, concerning marine biodiversity.
‘We have been advising the High Seas Alliance – a partnership of more than 50 civil society organisations and groups advocating for ocean conservation – on how to achieve a strong international treaty to protect the variety of ocean life.’
The text of a treaty was agreed at the United Nations in March – ‘a massive breakthrough!’ she notes – and now will need to be ratified by member states, a process that could admittedly take years.
A key aim of the treaty is to protect biodiversity by establishing ‘marine protected areas’, which will further the goal agreed by UN states in 2022 of protecting at least 30% of the planet’s land and water by 2030.
The obvious question is how you could enforce a protected zone, comparable to a ‘national park at sea’ but in the absence of an international, everywhere-at-all-times coast guard or other imaginary ocean-going police force.
‘The treaty adopts dispute resolution mechanisms that will permit one nation to bring claims against another for violation of its protections.’
‘The high seas used to be beyond reach, not susceptible to regular monitoring, but technology is bringing that situation to an end’, she says.
A third major area of engagement for Emma in her pro bono work has been women’s health, abortion law and working with the Center for Reproductive Rights.
She acted for the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health before the US Supreme Court in last year’s Dobbs case to file an amicus curiae or friend of the court brief in support of the respondent abortion providers, represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights. The Supreme Court overturned the right to abortion, but ‘the fight for women’s reproductive rights in the US continues each day’, Emma says.
Living in Brooklyn, Emma says that Midtown Manhattan is still recovering from the severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, with large numbers of storefronts shuttered for the time being, while neighbourhoods outside the city’s business centre are thriving as work from home has come to stay for many – even lawyers.
Her memory of Balliol is favourable and she says she fondly remembers meeting other law students in the law library to read real paper volumes of reported cases – in other words it wasn’t all digitalized and they were not yet reduced to staring at screens.
‘I remember the rows about tuition fees, which were being introduced at that time. The Balliol JCR was very active in protesting them. I also took part in theatre – I acted in an OUDs production of Marat/Sade at the Playhouse on Beaumont Street and, in a rather more fringe production, I directed a stripped-down version of Caryl Churchill’s [1994 play] ‘The Skriker. I’m a huge fan of hers.’
Her career advice to anyone graduating now is to ‘learn all you can no matter what the job or setting is – and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Step outside your comfort zone. Take ownership – don’t let stuff happen, make stuff happen and be in the driving seat.’