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A Shared Vision: The growth of a friendship and a professional collaboration born at HLS

Marissa Vahlsing ’11 and Ben Hoffman ’11 in Peru, where they are setting up an office of EarthRights International

Credit: Axel Fassio/Getty Marissa Vahlsing ’11 and Ben Hoffman ’11 in Peru, where they are setting up an office of EarthRights International

It’s hard to remember now what she said. But it was vintage Marissa—something others would not have thought, or had the courage to say. She raised her hand in the first week of law school, and spoke her mind.

Right away, Ben wanted to be her friend. He flagged her down on the crosswalk after class. He asked if she wanted to bat around some ideas. And that was how Ben Hoffman and Marissa Vahlsing started Harvard Law School: side by side.

Three years later, they graduated the same way.

“The joke is that Ben has become more like Marissa, and Marissa has become more like Ben, and they’re starting to blur into the same person,” said Susan Farbstein ’04, associate clinical director of the Human Rights Program, a mentor and teacher to both.

This fall, along with the rest of the Class of 2011, Marissa and Ben have headed out into the world to make their way. Specifically, they’re working in Peru, helping EarthRights International set up an office to support indigenous communities in the fight to protect their land.

When Marissa heard they had received funding for the project, she could not stop smiling.

“We were going anyway,” she said. “Now we’ll have the money to eat.”

In high school, Marissa wanted to be a potter. Or maybe a writer. Then one day, talking to an activist on a banana plantation in Costa Rica, she asked what he needed most.

A lawyer, he said.

Marissa was not the most conventional candidate for the profession. Waiting to interview for the prestigious Truman Scholarship, a leadership award that would help her pay for studies at HLS, she walked the hallway in bare feet, a peacock feather she found in India tucked into her pocket for luck.

“Everyone else thought, This girl, she’s never going to win,” Marissa said.

Then, in a surprise to no one who knew her, she did.

When Ben graduated high school, he delivered the valedictory speech entirely in rhyme.

It was about tolerance and kindness and making the world a better place; in prose it would have been a very good speech. But the rhyme made it Ben. It became the stuff of lore among his friends at HLS.

Ben is known for his silly streak; he’s the kind of man who will moonwalk with the 5-year-old daughter of a professor in the halls of HLS. But as the grandson of labor leaders and Holocaust survivors, he has always focused his mind on how to help.

“If I can make my family proud, I know I’ve done something right,” he said.

Right from the start, Ben and Marissa made HRP their home. She traveled to Bolivia to work with indigenous communities on an Alien Tort Statute case. He wrote amicus curiae briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court about corporate liability for human rights violations in Sudan.

Given their common interests, they could have competed. But early on, Ben and Marissa made the decision to work together. They bounced ideas off each other, borrowed styles from each other, and three years later, emerged better lawyers for it.

Marissa took on some of Ben’s level-headed calculation. Ben took on some of Marissa’s emotional intensity. Friends admired the way they worked—the discipline, the creativity, the vision.

“They’re the Siegfried and Roy of human rights law,” said Stephen Cha-Kim ’11.

The dream for Ben and Marissa is that one day they’ll start a nonprofit organization together. Their mentor, Tyler Giannini, clinical director of HRP, co-founded EarthRights International with a woman he sat beside in Torts class.

“If you’re going to do community lawyering, friendships like Ben and Marissa have are essential to the work,” Giannini said. “That support system is critical.”

This year in Peru, Marissa and Ben will face a sharp learning curve. Ben will have to cope with people who care less than he does. Marissa will have to keep her emotions in check. There are so many unknowns.

But after three years, it’s become habit now, one friend looking after the other. No matter what happens, they always do.


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Delayed Gratification

Two diplomas, then two decisions

From the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

A ruling in August against lenders in Bank of New York v. Bailey agreed with Harvard Legal Aid Bureau student Jennifer Tarr ’11, who argued the case last fall, as noted in the Summer Bulletin. In a 6-0 ruling, which has been called pivotal, the state’s high court found that lenders trying to evict people after foreclosure carry the burden of proving the foreclosure was valid. It also held that the state housing court has jurisdiction to hear a challenge to an already completed foreclosure when the challenge is brought in an eviction case.

“I was incredibly excited when I heard about the decision,” said Tarr, which she describes as the result of months of collaboration with other members of the Legal Aid Bureau, the legal services community across the state, City Life/Vida Urbana and her client.

“One of the main focuses of my time at HLAB was fighting for former homeowners to make sure that the bank seeking to evict them actually did own their home,” added Tarr, who is now working at the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago. “I’m hopeful that the case will make a difference in the legal services community’s ability to protect homeowners like my former clients from sloppy foreclosure practices.”

From the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit

A ruling in July by Judge Richard Posner ’62 cited an article written by Ryan Park ’10 when he was a law student on proving genocidal intent in international law. Posner was ruling on the appeal of a class action brought on behalf of children who worked in Firestone Natural Rubber Co.’s Liberian plants.

Park, who is clerking for Judge Robert Katzmann on the 2nd Circuit, described his reaction when he learned his article—which began as a paper he wrote as an intern in Cambodia—had been cited: “After the initial ebullition … there was, to be honest, a tense period of about 30 minutes while I closely parsed Judge Posner’s opinion with my heart in my stomach, trying to gather its import and implications.”

Posner agreed with the lower court decision to dismiss the case, but he found that the law supports corporations being held liable under the Alien Tort Statute.

“In retrospect,” said Park, “I guess I was worried that my work had been used to further a purpose with which I disagreed, though the reality was quite the contrary. I think the opinion, in addition to being characteristically brilliant, offers the most cogent … argument in support of corporate ATS liability of which I am aware.”

In October, the Supreme Court granted cert on another corporate ATS case, and its decision is expected to resolve a split on this issue in the lower courts. The HLS International Human Rights Clinic filed amicus briefs in the SCOTUS and 7th Circuit cases. Park, along with clinic faculty and students, will be watching.