4 Tips On How To Avoid Becoming Cynical

An unfortunate truth about law school is that it can be a real downer.

It’s expensive, demanding, and remarkably difficult. As a second year law student, I have spent the past two years watching most of my friends go through profound personal changes, often observing people I love spiral into cynical patterns of thought. I think those of us in human rights law have a particular tendency to fall into such cycles, and I’ll admit I have gone through phases of severe negative emotions myself.

As a bleeding heart and eternal optimist, I’d like to offer some advice to those going through a similar experience. This post is blunt and riddled with smidges of sarcasm, but it is also a true capturing of my experiences, and comes from someone who has found sincere happiness and fulfillment on the legal path (yes, there are a few of us!).


It might be rough out there, but don’t let it wreck you.
(image courtesy Shutterstock)

1. Stay in denial

Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but I do think it’s important to remember the benefits of delusion. You can sit around all day thinking about the debt you’ll be in, the hard work your career in human rights law will entail, and the fact that you’ll likely feel overwhelmed and underappreciated for significant portions of your working life.

And why wouldn’t you? All of those points are true, right?

Yes, mostly they are. But there are other truths on the subject worth exploring as well.

Although learning to be rational and realistic is an important aspect of your legal career, sometimes the solution to stressful thoughts is simply not to dwell on them. Debt is scary, and examining world problems will inherently be an overwhelming experience. However, as a human rights advocate, it will be important to always remember the rewarding nature of your work and the satisfaction that comes with feeling good about what you do.

So don’t dwell on the negative. Focus on the positive realities of the field and ignore the rest as best you can.

2. Surround yourself with equally delusional people

The problem with law school is that it’s filled with lawyers—folks who spend their days reading and re-reading heart-wrenching cases as their debt radically accumulates (debt they’re incurring so they can afford to be hazed, broken, and scoffed at).

But here’s the good news. Law school is also filled with intelligent, passionate, and optimistic people. Sometimes they’re just hidden in the background of the day-to-day drudgery.

Law school gives you the profound privilege of connecting with bright, persevering individuals. Focus on those people—they’re the ones who will further your happiness and support you in your career goals, not serve as a daily reminder of the pitfalls of your future vocation.

It takes courage and skill to be happy during difficult phases of life. Don’t give up, and surround yourself with others who haven’t either.

3. Intern or volunteer at a human rights organization

Internships are an essential component of a legal education, and it can be terribly tempting to accept a position from the biggest law firm or most renowned judge who offers. Although people told me I was crazy and stupid for throwing away such opportunities, I knew that in order to make an educated professional decision, I had to experience human rights law as a student.

It’s a difficult fork in the road to encounter, and this choice is not for everyone. But I wouldn’t trade my internship experience for anything because it opened my eyes to the incredible things I could actually do with my degree. Furthermore, because it’s such a complicated division of the law, I now have experience in international law, United Nations protocol, immigration law, federal courts, business law, tax law, constitutional law, government law, legislation, policy work, political analysis, and many other fields that intertwine with the subject of human rights. I have met role models, made connections, and gained perspective on what I can do within the boundaries of my profession.

Currently, I work in a civil and human rights lobbying firm in Washington, DC, and I can’t imagine a better experience. Every day I am surrounded by optimistic people who radiate joy, passion, and hope. We have hard days, but our good days are so profoundly fulfilling, it makes it all worth it.

4. Remember what a treasure your education is

You might have heard the phrase “the world doesn’t need more lawyers,” but the truth is that the world does need more human rights advocates in all professional fields. Education creates many chances for personal improvement, but for me, it also opened doors to helping others.

My education is my most valued possession. It has been emotionally draining, financially difficult, and overall I expect it to be one of the most difficult things I will ever go through in my life. However, it has also equipped me with an unusual skill set and understanding, and has been the most important investment of my life.

Some days, I feel cynical, small, and overwhelmed. I want to declare my work a losing battle, throw my hands up, and walk away. However, that’s when I take a moment to step back and remember how lucky I am to have such an incredible opportunity. I have the chance to educate myself, understand the world, and use my talents to help others.

Who could have all that and stay cynical?


Victoria Slatton is a second year law student at Pepperdine University and a passionate advocate for human and civil rights. She believes in justice, equality, and the true value of mischievous behavior.

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Floating the idea: Weather balloons spread uncensored information to North Koreans

At Idealist, we love good ideas of all kinds, but especially those that turn commonly-accepted notions on their heads, get us to confront our beliefs, and (maybe) stir up a little trouble. To honor ideas brave and bold, and inspired by Sydney, Australia’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, we welcome you to Idealist in Action’s Dangerous Ideas Week.

At Idealist, we envision a world where all people can lead free and dignified lives, and we support everyone’s right to help others. So we were interested to learn about the Human Rights Foundation’s (HRF’s) recent effort to spread information to North Koreans living under censorship.

“These balloons are an information lifeline to ordinary North Koreans, who have no means to learn about the world beyond the lies of their government,” said HRF president Thor Halvorssen in a press release.

“The international community often focuses on how little we know about life inside North Korea—but the real story is that North Koreans know little to nothing about the world we live in,” he continued. “Most are unaware that there is an alternative to repressive tyranny. We are helping to change that.”

Information: up, up, and away!
(image courtesy HRF)

The creative campaign made use of 20 large weather balloons that distributed information from the outside world directly to North Koreans. On January 15, the balloons traveled over the border between South Korea and North Korea, and carried leaflets with information about democracy, along with transistor radios, USBs loaded with the entire Korean Wikipedia, and even DVDs of South Korean soap operas.

The Human Rights Foundation worked with a group called Fighters for a Free North Korea to pull the launch together. A previous attempt was made in June last year, but was canceled at the last minute for fear of retaliation. At the time of this writing, it was unknown how many of the materials actually found their way into the hands of North Koreans.

Read more about the Human Rights Foundation’s launch here.

What other information-spreading efforts do you know about that have a dangerous side?


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7 tips to consider if you want a career in human rights

On Friday, we shared a list of opportunities and organizations to explore in human rights, in honor of Human Rights Day. However, breaking into this field can be a bit challenging, so we invited Akhila Kolisetty, a law student and blogger who has worked at various human rights organizations, to share a bit about her journey and experiences.

by Akhila Kolisetty

Photo credit: ind{yeah}, Creative Commons/Flickr

I first developed a passion for international development and human rights as an undergraduate at Northwestern, where I studied economics and political science. My time studying development economics in London and working with an international access to justice NGO in Geneva hugely influenced my worldview, convincing me to work at the intersection of access to legal services and women’s rights in the global South. After graduation, I chose to work at a civil rights law firm and also to fundraise for a start-up NGO in Afghanistan that sought to open legal aid clinics promoting rule of law and women’s rights throughout the country.

Having spoken with women and girls in Washington D.C., Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, I’ve noticed the interrelated nature of poverty and violence against women and the impact a passionate legal advocate can have on the lives of the poor. And yet, legal services work remains underfunded in the international development realm. This interest has eventually led me to law school, where I’m hoping to develop the skills to be a better human rights advocate not only through fundraising and running an NGO, but through direct representation of the poor – especially women, girls, and refugees.

Is a career in international human rights for you?

Getting into international human rights can be a challenge; it is a difficult field to enter and can be especially competitive, particularly in today’s economy. In addition, there are many things to consider: how willing are you to travel abroad, live away from your family and friends, acclimate to a completely new and unfamiliar environment, and sometimes live in rough environments? The more flexible you are, and the more passionate you are about living abroad and learning from poor communities, the better chance you’ll have to breaking into this field.  Here are a few tips to help you get started.

1. Volunteer and intern as much as possible

Unpaid internships are essentially a requirement to get into the development and human rights field. Check out a start-up social enterprise’s website and email them offering to contribute something: a social media presence, website development, event planning or grant writing. These things can go a long way for a small NGO! In fact, small organizations can actually be more receptive to your help, and more willing to give you a significant role than large NGOs. At the same time, internships with well-established NGOs can be vital in giving you credibility and valuable experience. Try everything you can to gain experience, skills, references, and a strong sense of what work setting you thrive in.

2. Learn and think critically about development and human rights.

If you’re just starting out in international human rights work, educate yourself! Even if you’re not majoring in international relations, development studies, human rights, or a related subject, you can still learn by reading relevant books (check out works by Bill Easterly, Paul Collier, Dambisa Moyo, and Amartya Sen – among many others) and useful development and human rights blogs (such as A View From the Cave, Chris Blattman, and How Matters). More than anything, I think it’s valuable to think critically about your involvement in international human rights, and about how you can realistically contribute and best make an impact as an outsider in this work.

3. Study or intern abroad as an undergraduate, and learn other languages.

Studying and interning abroad can give you critical “field” or in-country experience that can help you get your first international human rights job. Studying or working abroad can give you a much better sense of the issues facing the country or region you live in, and can also impart valuable language skills. Knowing another language and having the ability to speak thoughtfully about the politics and economics of a region can be a real asset. Spending time abroad will also give you key contacts; maintaining these contacts can help you find a job down the road, or perhaps even apply for programs such as the Fulbright, which allow you to devise your own research project.

4. Learn concrete skills relevant to NGO management.

Most NGOs appreciate skills such as grant writing, fundraising, research and writing, communications, program implementation, and monitoring and evaluation. If you can develop concrete skills in writing grants, hosting fundraising events, researching and writing human rights reports, or marketing organizations effectively through web design and social media, you will be able to contribute concretely to the needs of most non-profit organizations. Learning valuable skills in school – such as strong writing, research, and economic analysis – can also be very useful.

5. Blog, write, and engage in social media.

Personal branding can be useful in the development and human rights field. Starting a blog and contributing your thoughts on human rights and social justice work can be a useful exercise in honing your knowledge, increasing your awareness and understanding of key issues facing your field, and also getting your voice heard. Combining blogging with social media such as Twitter can be extremely useful in making connections that can eventually lead to a job, considering the importance of networking.

6. Have a specific goal if possible, but also be flexible.

Focusing on a specific subject matter area – such as women’s rights, environmental justice, refugee rights, economic development, or post-conflict reconstruction – can be helpful, although it is not necessary. Having an area of focus, however, can allow you to develop particular expertise and knowledge in one area. At the same time, flexibility can go a long way. If you’re willing to take on a lower salary or relocate to a new country or city, for instance, you’ll have a lot more opportunities available to you.

7. Consider graduate school, but be careful about the cost.

I chose to go to law school because of my particular passion for the intersection of law, human rights, and development and my desire to learn direct client representation. A Master’s in International Affairs, an MPP, or even a Ph.D. from a top school can also be helpful in breaking into the field. However, many graduate degrees are extremely expensive, and you should consider carefully whether the degree will be worth the cost.

Ultimately, a career in international human rights can be incredible; it is deeply inspiring and energizing to see grassroots movements, the positive impact of aid and development, and small victories that add up to broader social change and justice. At the same time, it can be truly frustrating and challenging, with constant international travel, time away from family and friends, and the seemingly slow pace of change you want to see happen. Following these tips will help you break into the field – but it’s up to you to decide whether this is the right path for you, and the right way to make an impact!

Akhila Kolisetty


Author Bio: Akhila Kolisetty is a first year student at Harvard Law School and a graduate of Northwestern University. She has worked with human rights and legal non-profits in Washington D.C., Chicago, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, and is passionate about issues of gender-based violence, access to justice, and rule of law.

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