Foto: Tetsuro Miyazaki

Nani Jansen Reventlow im Porträt

"Only by speaking up can we change the system."

Nani Jansen Reventlow, a human rights lawyer specialised in strategic litigation and freedom of expression and the founding director of the Digital Freedom Fund, on how to be successful in strategic litigation while managing several jurisdictions, the advantages of living abroad and the significance of women speaking up.

Dear Nani, I’m very happy to meet you here in Berlin where you founded the Digital Freedom Fund – a Fund that supports partners in Europe to advance digital rights through strategic litigation. Why Berlin?

Berlin is a perfect fit. It has a very active, lively digital rights scene. There are many organisations based here working on digital rights and also organisations that work on strategic litigation, such as the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. Berlin also generally offers a great environment for human rights start-ups, so it was a rich environment for founding the Digital Freedom Fund.


You left the Netherlands where you were trained as an attorney to work as a human rights lawyer throughout the world. How do you manage with all the different jurisdictions? What kind of difficulties have to be considered when practicing law in different countries?

Well, as you know there is the classic distinction between civil law and common law. For me, the greatest challenge in the beginning was to adapt to common law which is different from the civil law system I knew from the Netherlands. However, if you boil it down to the essentials, you still find lots of similarities between national legal systems no matter where they are; the type of remedies you can seek, for instance. Once you look at the international level, the courts are regulated by a regime of their own. Whenever I approach a new court, I read about the procedure and case law as much as I can and then I try to talk to people who have litigated there. There is nothing more valuable than learning from others’ experience and sharing your own knowledge with others!

Would you give young lawyers the advice to go abroad?

In my opinion, everyone should spend some time abroad - that is of course if you can afford it or can find ways to finance it, as I did when I was a student. It helps you to literally look at the world from a different angle. It is comparable to zooming out of the world with a camera: when you are inside a country, all local problems and differences with other countries seem magnified. These differences get smaller and smaller the further you zoom away. My time in the US, for example, made me realize how similar European countries actually are. The differences that are emphasized so much when you are here really start to blur from a distance.

What steps need to be taken to become a successful human rights lawyer?

That really depends on what you are aiming for: Is it strategic litigation, working at an NGO, prosecution at an international criminal court, something else? Unlike other practice groups there is no determined path to strive for a career in human rights. However, if you want to work in strategic litigation, one good path is to first gain some experience by working at a decent law firm while doing some human rights cases pro-bono on the side. If you aim for working at the international criminal court, gaining experience as a prosecutor or defense attorney in your national system of justice first might make sense. If you consider working for an NGO, it is important to choose your internships and jobs in such a way that makes it easy for NGOs to find a reason to hire you. Show “transferable skills” that do not have to be transferred too far! (laughing)

You are a very successful woman of color in law. Have you experienced sexism or racism practicing law around the world? When confronted with these kinds of situations, how did/do you deal with them?

Yes, actually I have. With respect to my sex and skin color – and sometimes perceived age – it is clearly noticeable that assumptions are being made on a regular basis in the work context. I hadn’t really encountered much overt racism growing up in the Netherlands. Or at least I wasn’t that much attuned to it when I was younger. But once you start working life, you quickly notice that people will assume a lot about your qualifications due to the way you look. I had the most bizarre experiences at the Dutch law firm I used to work for. At the time, I was shocked that such assumptions were made, but you soon learn that this happens almost everywhere.

There are numerous examples, but one is that the person leading on cases will always be a man. Courts usually assume that I am a “Mr. Jansen” until I appear there. Once, at a hearing at an international human rights court, one of the lawyers at the registry was surprised when I showed up and turned out to be a woman. He asked my client in my presence: “Did you know she was a woman when you hired her?”

I used to ignore these kind of situations: I took it with humor and went on. I guess part of the reason why I did not make it public was that I did not want to emphasize my “otherness” when talking about it. However, I realized that staying silent made it worse: by not speaking up I was participating in the system. Only by speaking up can we change the fact that women and especially women of color have to be twice as good as men to be half as appreciated. So I spoke up. I wrote a blog post on what it would be like to be a white man for one day (Anm. d. Red.: “24 hours of privilege”, available on medium.com/@nanijansenreventlow/). And I try to speak up when I think it’s necessary. By pointing out at gatherings focused on gender diversity that people are leaving the intersectionality component out of the equation, for example. But also on a more basic level. When my credit card service recently asked me repeatedly to “please speak English” after I told them my official name (which is Yakaré-Oulé) I did not laugh, but took the time to file a complaint with the company, asked them to do something about it on a structural level and send their employees on a cultural sensitivity training

What can we do to change how women and especially women of color are perceived in a professional context?

It is not only important that those affected speak up. Allies have an important role as well. Whenever a lawyer witnesses a case of discrimination or bias he or she should stand up for their colleagues. People who are not directly affected by sexism or racism have a different position of power. Their criticism will not be perceived as self-serving because they will not be perceived to “benefit” from it.

 Furthermore, we have to change our perception of ourselves. We should begin by not criticizing ourselves to the point of disqualifying ourselves. If I can generalize, women tend to assume that they have to be the perfect fit for the job or task while nobody is ever utterly perfect for the job. So when I am in doubt I often ask myself: Would an average dude do this? (laughing) We also need to literally change the picture. Even today most people draw a white man when they are asked to draw a leader –– there was a recent article in the New York Times that discussed this (Anm. d. Red.: available on https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/16/health/women-leadership-workplace.html). To change that picture, those in leading positions at law firms and elsewhere need to be diverse. To achieve this diversity, the hiring process has to be well-structured and those doing the hiring need to be a diverse group themselves. Additionally, quotas matter. I find it insulting when opponents of quotas advance the argument that firms should not be obliged to choose women for leading positions because that could lead to a situation in which the person less qualified is chosen. This means that they seem to assume that there are no diverse people qualified enough to do the job

What do you regard as the downsides of your work? Does all your travelling – USA, Germany, Netherlands, Africa – ever feel overwhelming?

For me, the most difficult part of working as a human rights lawyer is to see how some cases receive public attention while other cases that are just as important do not. Obviously, using public attention can make a difference to raising awareness of more systemic issues. The work I did in Azerbaijan with Amal Clooney on Khadija Ismayilova’s case drew a lot of public attention, which I believe played a crucial role in not only the case itself, but also in highlighting other cases of violations of freedom of the press in Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, I think there is something sad about it, as at the time we had numerous other cases on our docket at MLDI, the organization I worked for. Many of those concerned equally egregious human rights violations that were deserving of a public outcry. But most remained off the radar for the general public.

Sure, the travelling is a little tiring sometimes, but I guess my main method to deal with it is denial. Also, I have a rule: Never travel for anything that is not worthwhile. When I follow that rule, the travelling I decide to do is energizing, too!

Due to your career path you have a great expertise in strategic litigation. What are the most important qualities a lawyer has to possess in order to be a good litigator?

In order to do strategic litigation that has impact beyond the case you should have both, a vision (What do I want to achieve?) and a great deal of realism (What is achievable?). You have to be willing to take a risk, but it has to be a calculated risk, a case that is actually winnable. If you take on a case that is ill-conceived, your loss could set back the whole field for decades. Unless you have a good plan for turning that loss into a win, of course. Not all strategic litigation has an impact just because of a win in court, some cases can actually have success outside the courtroom because they are lost.

Could you tell us about cases that have had great impact on your professional or personal life?

I was very moved by conversations with clients that had suffered torture. The way they were still fighting back in spite of all the harm they suffered made a deep impression on me. Of course these cases also taught me to keep that certain kind of distance you need to be able to deal with such cases. There were also cases I lost even though I had really hoped to get a client out of jail. You need to give yourself a moment to be sad about that, but then it’s time to get back to work and think “what can I do next to make this better for them?”

How do you deal with the pressure of knowing that if you lose, your client might have to be imprisoned or endure further violation of his or her human rights?

What helps is the feeling of contributing to the cause, knowing that the issue is important. If you know that people working on issues on the ground could be jailed, you cannot very well feel sorry for yourself. Due to that, working through weekends on human rights cases is different from working endless hours at a big law firm, where often bad planning of someone else has caused your extra work. However, there is also a danger to that feeling if you leave aside your own needs. It is important never to forget to care for yourself, too.

Working at a well-known law firm in Netherlands, you did pro bono projects parallel to work. Moreover, you mentioned that pro bono work is currently developing in Netherlands. What can we do in Germany to encourage pro-bono work in law firms?

What triggered pro-bono work in the Netherlands? I think Dutch law firms increasingly looked at Anglo-American law firms whose system of pro bono is much more developed than the ones in Europe. Moreover, Dutch law firms realized that occasionally painting an orphanage or other one-off projects did not make much sense when there were ways to let their employees use their actual legal skills to do good. Additionally, clients and young attorneys showed interest in the social impact of law firms. One way to encourage pro bono work in Germany could be to express your interest in pro bono work at job interviews and thus show firms that it matters. If they want to hire talent, they have to offer more options than just endless amounts of billable hours of commercial work.

Which women lawyer should be nominated as a role model for breaking.through? Why?

I have a friend that I would like to nominate who is a very talented lawyer and has been of great help to me in getting better at presenting myself: Hilary Stauffer. She used to work as a human rights consultant and now is a Humanitarian Affairs Officer at the UN, for which she recently moved to Baghdad.

Thank you so much for this interview!

Berlin, 4 October 2018. The interview was conducted by Clara zu Löwenstein.

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