Be they lawyers by day, legal superheroes by night or pro bono lawyers who are passionate about making the world a better place – each and every one of the lawyers below deserve recognition for outstanding legal efforts in their community and beyond. As a responsible business, we at Obelisk Support look up to lawyers who are changing the world for the better. After our list of lawyers who changed the world in 2019 and 2018, the 2020 list honours the rule of law and lawyers who contribute to our society in the current COVID-19 crisis. Our list also features lawyers who protect our planet as sadly, the climate crisis is still as critical as ever, even if we are all taking positive steps to live more sustainable lives. Without further ado, here is the 2020 list of lawyers who are changing the world for the better.
Civil rights activist, China
A former law lecturer, Xu Zhiyong is a human rights lawyer who has long been an inspiration for human rights advocates around the world and was recognised as one of the top global thinkers by Foreign Policy news. Using his legal experience, Xu firmly and carefully pushed his calls for political change and social justice in existing laws, which led him to co-found in 2003 the NGO Open Constitution Initiative. This organisation consisted of lawyers and academics in the People’s Republic of China who advocated for the rule of law and greater constitutional protections. Xu was subsequently arrested in 2009 on charges of tax evasion and detained shortly before being released on bail. In 2012, he co-founded the New Citizens’ Movement, a collection of lawyers and activists demanding civil rights protections and rule of law. On January 26, 2014, Xu was sentenced to four years in prison for “gathering crowds to disrupt public order”. In February 2020, he was one of the few lawyers criticising President Xi Jinping’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and was arrested in southern China. He hasn’t been seen since 15 February 2020.
Social justice advocate, Lawyer, Nigeria
Funke Adeoye is a Nigerian lawyer, social innovator and international development enthusiast. She founded Hope Behind Bars Africa in 2018, an organisation that leverages technology to increase access to justice for indigent inmates across Nigerian prison facilities, as well as help correctional facilities in Nigeria achieve inmate rehabilitation and reintegration.
Hope Behind Bars was conceived after Adeoye wrote her thesis on prison reforms and restorative justice in Nigeria. She began volunteering with prison-focused organisations, which gave her the opportunity to see the true state of Nigeria’s prisons. She was horrified by what she saw, several poor prisoners who had been awaiting trial for years had no access to justice in sight. She spent a part of her time as a legal associate handling a couple of probono cases and in 2018, she eventually got Hope Behind Bars Africa off the ground.
An experienced lawyer, Funke is a 2019 fellow of Cornell University’s Center for Death Penalty Makwanyane Institute. She has personally handled over 30 pro bono cases from the lowest courts up to Court of Appeal, most of which she secured an acquittal for inmates who had been wrongly accused. Passionate about human rights and inclusion, Funke believes no box nor boundaries are required for thinking.
Mariel Hawley Dávila
Public health advocate, Attorney, Mexico
Latina lawyers represent a formidable force and yet, are often underrepresented in the media. Mariel Hawley Dávila, a Mexican lawyer turned motivational speaker and ultra marathon swimmer uses her sports achievements to fundraise for community causes. After reading law at the Universidad Iberoamericana, Hawley worked at Basham Ringe y Correo Abogados, Banco Santander and Grupo Marti. While practising as a lawyer, she completed some of the most challenging open water swims on the planet and was recognised as Woman of the Year 2019 by the World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA). WOWSA founder Steven Munatones explains a small sliver of her background and accomplishments, “Her selflessness and widespread charitable works are constants in her life. She is always on the go: she swims, she works, she writes, and she is a working mother who had to struggle on after the death of her husband in 2015.” Through her marathon swims and channel crossings, she has been raising money for the Quiero Sonreír project to fund surgeries for Mexican children with cleft lips and palate, paying for oncological treatments for children with cancer, working with women in jail, and promoting health via Mexicanos Activos for many years.
Young law students advocate, Senior Finance Lawyer, UK
After studying at the New York University of Law, Anne Bodley worked at Magic Circle firms, before moving to Tanzania in 2003 to work for the United Nations. It was while in Tanzania that she nurtured a vocation to help others less fortunate, often helping locals with basic tasks – either buying mobile phones for those in need or taking people on trips to hospital. In 2010, she founded Lex:lead, a charity that runs an annual essay competition to help would-be lawyers in the world’s least developed countries, funds their studies, and creates internship and scholarship opportunities…truly important work to help men and women studying law to succeed. To date, Lex:lead has handed out 68 cash prizes (nearly US$40,000) to underprivileged students across eligible countries in Africa, Asia and Americas, as reassessed regularly by the United Nations. since July 2012, Lex:lead has been an intellectual partner to the World Bank-supported Global Forum on Law, Justice and Development. From 2015 onwards, the project started placing students in internships (also funded by sponsor law firms) and in 2018, the charity launched a mentoring program to further support students and countries of operation. To add to this impressive list, Bodley works full time at HSBC as senior legal counsel in the global banking and markets division focusing on e-channels (payments and cash management area).
Gay rights activist, Lawyer, Kenya
Kenyan lawyer Eric Gitari co-founded the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) in 2012 to fight for legal reforms and create a civic space for LGBT individuals in Kenya. To him, changing the laws are a way to slowly change society. After growing up in rural Meru, in eastern Kenya, he studied law, against the wishes of his parents who wanted him to be a doctor. After law school he joined a prestigious law firm, but was unhappy and quit. The following years saw him travelling, teaching at a juvenile prison, writing stories, living as a nomad and hitchhiking across east Africa. Upon his return to Kenya, he volunteered with an organisation dealing with gender-based violence before getting a job at the Kenya Human Rights Commission in charge of setting up their LGBT programme. He noticed homophobia worsening on the continent, with Nigeria and Uganda pushing stricter legislation, the 2011 murder of a prominent anti-gay rights activist in Uganda, and rumours of an anti-homosexuality bill in Kenya. That’s when he co-founded the NGLHRC. In a major victory for Kenya’s LGBT community, the organisation won a case in 2018 to ban forced anal testing, which had long been used on men suspected of homosexuality. They are now looking at striking down two sections of the penal code making consensual sex between adults illegal and punishable by up to 14 years in jail. In 2019, he was one of several gay rights activists leading a petition to decriminalise homosexuality in Kenya (which the High Court rejected). Gitari is currently working on his PhD at Harvard University in the United States, and is researching the criminalisation of homosexuality on the continent.
Probono champion, Family Lawyer, USA
In January 2020, the Florida Bar honoured Susan Lilian Ojeda, founder of Legal Ministry HELP, Inc., a nonprofit organisation providing free legal services to those in need in Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties (Florida). Before receiving her J.D. from Stetson University College of Law in 2001, Ojeda earned the William F. Blews Pro Bono Service Award, given to students who provide free services beyond what is required for graduation. In 2003, she founded what would eventually become Legal Ministry HELP, Inc. Ojeda helps to obtain domestic violence injunctions and assists with dissolutions of marriage and child custody cases for victims of abuse; assists the elderly; assists widows and widowers; drafts legal documents for immigrants; paternity cases and child support cases; and drafts wills and other legal documents for indigent persons.
Disabilities Advocate, Environmental Lawyer, Australia
With a Masters of Law from Sydney University, Jeff Smith worked in the environmental and social justice sector for about 20 years. Most notably, he was the CEO of the Environmental Defenders Office of NSW, a community legal centre that specialises in public interest environmental law. He also serves on the Boards of the Haymarket Foundation and EDO Ltd as well as the Advisory Committee for the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law. Prior to that, he has been on the following Boards and management committees – CLC NSW, the Total Environment Centre, the Environmental Planning and Law Association, and the Climate Institute. Smith has written extensively on environmental law and policy, criminal justice and the rule of law. He has taught in a wide variety of fields including industrial regulation, environmental law, litigation and criminal law and process, postgraduate and undergraduate courses at Macquarie and Sydney University. In August 2019, he became the new CEO of People with Disability Australia, a national disability rights, advocacy and representative organisation giving the disability community a voice of its own. He now focuses on shaping Australia’s response to improving the lives and opportunities for people with disability over the next decade and beyond.
Activist, Human rights lawyer, China
In a legal career spanning more than a decade, Qin Yongpei has defended other human rights lawyers facing reprisals from the Chinese authorities, provided legal assistance to vulnerable groups, and taken up cases involving unlawful administrative detention, industrial pollution, forced demolition of housing, and wrongful convictions. He is the founder and director of the Guangxi Baijuming Law Firm, where several human rights lawyers in Guangxi also worked. In July 2015, he was briefly taken and questioned by police in what has become known as the “709 Crackdown” targeting human rights lawyers and other defenders across China. In May 2018, the authorities revoked Qin Yongpei’s lawyer’s license and ordered him to shut down his law firm. He then founded a legal consultancy services company to continue his legal work. Around the same time, he also co-founded the “China Post-Lawyers Club” to provide solidarity and mutual assistance to human rights lawyers who have been disbarred. He is currently detained and charged as “subversive”. Since the coronavirus broke out in Chinese prisons, his wife has no idea whether he is still alive or in good health.
Asylum seekers advocate, Immigration Lawyer, USA
When illegal immigrants made world news in 2019 because of the rough treatment enforced by the Trump administration, many American lawyers got together to provide legal help to asylum seeking families. Jodi Goodwin is one of the lawyers on the front line at the border, part of a group of legal first responders who risk their own financial, physical and psychological well-being to serve refugees teetering on the edge of survival. In Matamoros and six other Mexican cities stretching along the border from California to Texas, 60,000 migrants have been displaced since the start of the Remain in Mexico policy in early 2019. In Brownsville, where roughly 15 lawyers cross the border on a regular basis to represent refugees, only a few are immigration specialists qualified to represent clients in court. Jodi Goodwin is one of them and for her efforts, the self-described “guerilla lawyer” received the 2019 American Immigration Lawyer Association’s Pro Bono Award. Now, her work is made more challenging by the border closure due to the coronavirus crisis. In The Monitor, she says, “I and the few other warrior lawyers here on the border depend on going to Mexico to be able to represent our clients. Not being able to travel to Mexico makes things monumentally more difficult,” adding that technology like FaceTime and messaging services, “absolutely is not able to replace in person meetings, especially dealing with people who are victims of trauma and trafficking.” A graduate of the University of Texas and St. Mary’s University, she is involved in several organisations designed to teach and train young lawyers and holds several positions with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, including Past Chair of the Texas Chapter of AILA, national and local liaison committees with Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Homeless advocate, Solicitor, UK
As of December 2019, an estimated 320,000 people are homeless in the UK, according to the latest research by Shelter, and the COVID-19 crisis has made things worse, creating housing nightmares for many vulnerable people. While many take part in charity fundraisers to tackle the issue, others like Sukhjit Ahluwalia take the matter into their own hands. A true example of a lawyer giving back to his local community, Sukhjit Ahluwalia helps the homeless in Stratford and Ilford (where he grew up) via a charity he founded. A solicitor since 1998, Ahluwalia worked several years in the City before founding his own law firm, Avery Emerson. Priding himself on delivering a personal and human approach towards Avery Emersons’ clients, he also applied the same approach to the wider community. In 2007, Ahluwalia became probono lawyer for the Sri Sathya Sai charitable trust, an India-based organisation serving society in the fields of health, spirituality and education and in 2018, he founded the charity SEVA Street. Seva Street prepares and distributes food to the homeless, serving hot home-cooked meals each week to people living on the street at Stratford Center in east London. In the Newham Recorder, he said, “What we really want to do is help people get off the streets, but we realise that’s quite a big task in itself, so there’s steps to get there. Going onto the streets and giving out food makes a small difference, but it also helps us understand what the needs are.”