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Summer Experience: David Thompson ’19L Advocates for the Right to Health

“NGOs are often times understaffed and underfunded, which enables a self-starter to make a significant contribution to the mission of the organization. PHRI gave me a lot of autonomy and responsibility—especially for an intern.”

J. David Thompson is a 2L at Washington and Lee School of Law. He received his BS in Economics and MBA from Liberty University. Before coming to law school, David served in the U.S. Army. At W&L, he is President of the Washington & Lee Veterans’ Advocates (WLVA) and involved in the Women’s Law Student Organization (WLSO). Separately, he is Co-Director of Service to School JD Operations and a 2016 Veterans in Global Leadership Fellow. Connect with David at www.jdavidthompson.com.

What first attracted you to W&L Law?

One of the things that drew me to W&L was the focus on international law and the opportunities, while still a student, to work with faculty to make a global impact. This proved itself to be true time and time again, and it helped immensely during my internship following my 1L year.

What did you do this summer? How did you find/get this position?

I spent the majority of my summer working for Physicians for Human Rights–Israel (PHRI). In early August, I spent about 10 days traveling throughout Israel on a law and policy tour with Our Soldiers Speak to meet with Members of the Knesset, Israeli Supreme Court, and commanders from the Israeli military.

I knew coming to Washington and Lee that I wanted to eventually work in either national security or in the foreign service. While I plan to work for the government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) implement a lot of the efforts. In the long-term, interning with an NGO enabled me to better understand the challenges they face and will help me to be a better partner. In the short-term, this internship provided me with the opportunity to make a difference on important human rights issues while learning through hands-on application.

When I was determining in which sector to try to intern, I reached out to a W&L Law alumna that currently works in one of the places that I was considering. We spoke several times and continue to remain in touch. She provided advice on how to make myself the best possible candidate and employee for that position. Those discussions ultimately helped me determine where to look for an internship.

Finding this specific internship took a lot of twists and turns. To me, it was important to find an internship that was the best fit for me rather than accepting the first offer that came along. I found organizations that I thought did meaningful work and sent e-mails asking about internships. When I initially contacted PHRI, there was nothing on their website about accepting interns. If the opportunity wasn’t there, I created it. Fortunately, it worked out well for all parties.

Describe your work experience.

I worked as a legal intern with PHRI, located in Tel Aviv-Yafo. My work focused primarily on using international law to advocate for human rights standards, particularly the right to health, through submissions to the United Nations (UN) and then lobbying foreign diplomats on these issues. This experience allowed me to see how the UN decides which issues to pursue and to see the discussions between Committee members and State parties under review.

Being a native English speaker, I also assisted in non-legal related tasks such as reviewing annual reports for PHRI. I actually really enjoyed this aspect because it allowed me to further be a contributing member of the team and provides insights into other aspects of the organization.

With Our Soldiers Speak, I engaged in dialogue with senior political, judicial, and security figures throughout Israel on law, policy, and security—particularly ways to provide stability and peace in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

What classes or experiences were useful in preparing you for the summer work?

The things that attracted me to W&L Law initially proved to be very helpful during the internship. During my 1L year, faculty assisted me in publishing internationally on human rights abuses and American diplomacy in Ethiopia. I further worked with a faculty member to document and report abuses by the Government of Ethiopia and its security forces to the UN. The Transnational Law Institute funded participation at a conference at the World Bank, which allowed me to connect and network with practitioners from around the world. Through this experience, I was able to conduct pro bono research for the World Bank Group’s Women, Business, and the Law on the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’s penal code to help identify and monitor gender-based discrimination and violence. Recently, the Jordanian parliament repealed one of the major laws highlighted in the research, a law that allowed a rapist to forego punishment by marrying the victim. While these experiences were all intrinsically rewarding and beneficial in the promotion of human rights, they also proved helpful during my 1L summer internship.

As far as classes, the Transnational Law class provided the basis and legal framework on how to approach international law. Having this class as a 1L gives W&L students a competitive advantage in international internships. Conferences hosted by the German Law Journal further helped enable more of a holistic approach to thinking about issues and recommending solutions.

Washington and Lee continued to offer support throughout the summer. Without the scholarships from the Natkin Fund and the Transnational Law Institute, this internship may not have been possible.

What was your favorite aspect of this summer work experience?

NGOs are often times understaffed and underfunded, which enables a self-starter to make a significant contribution to the mission of the organization. PHRI gave me a lot of autonomy and responsibility—especially for an intern. During the course of this internship, I independently submitted two major reports to the UN: the first for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and the second to the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Additionally, I worked with two UN Special Rapporteurs on specific abuses on the right to health and legal responsibilities of the occupying power. It was very rewarding that, as an intern, I had work that I could call my own. With the amount of autonomy, I could schedule my own meetings and work to solve the issues the way I best saw fit. This enabled me to work across multiple departments to broaden my understanding and outreach. It was also intrinsically rewarding that these efforts played a part to help better the lives of others.

In addition to the work, I took the opportunity to travel throughout the country, meet new people, and try new things. Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory are full of historical landmarks and has amazing beaches. While I definitely missed the Blue Ridge Mountains, it was hard to beat the sunset over the Mediterranean. Fortunately, I could take a bus or hitchhike to get to most major landmarks that I wanted to see.

What would you say to someone looking to intern internationally?

While interning overseas for an NGO has truly been a very rewarding and exciting experience, it is not for everyone. There are certain challenges associated with living and working in a foreign country that require a person to be adaptable and independent. The ambiguity and relatively laissez faire approach may not offer the strong structure that some people need to learn or succeed. There are cultural nuances that make interning abroad different that many traditional, legal internships. Further, there is a certain amount of “handholding” that seems more common in some US internships that does not occur much internationally. Despite all of that, anyone who is a self-starter and considering a career in international law, diplomacy, or international advocacy should strongly consider a similar internship.

How do you think this experience will shape the rest of your time at W&L Law?

I hope to use my experiences to help the next class. These opportunities have proven to be very rewarding and valuable. With the hands-on approach offered by Washington and Lee, I want to help other students that are interested in international advocacy to prepare themselves to take a similar type of internship. The current 1L class is promising, and I plan to continue the W&L tradition of helping others obtain their goals.