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Lawyers Who Are Changing the World For the Better 2020

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.

Xu Zhiyong

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.

Funke Adeoye

Social justice advocate, Lawyer, Nigeria

Funke Adeoye

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.

Anne Bodley

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).

Eric Gitari

Gay rights activist, Lawyer, Kenya

Source: Harvard Law Today

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.

Susan Ojeda

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.

Jeff Smith

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.

Qin Yongpei

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.

Jodi Goodwin

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.

Sukhjit Ahluwalia

Homeless advocate, Solicitor, UK

Source: David Brunetti for Seva Street

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.”

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Lawyers Who Are Changing the World For the Better 2018

Many of us dream of making the world a better place , but how can lawyers use their skills to give back to the community? For some, their passion becomes their area of expertise. Others decide to use their legal skills for other societal goals. Regardless of their motivation, they all strive to create a positive impact on society. as Professor Maria Fletcher from the University of Glasgow says, rebellious lawyers need skills of “resilience, empathy and community” to challenge the status quo and help those who need it most. As Obelisk Support embarks on a year-long journey to become a Responsible Business with Heart of the City, we look up to lawyers who are changing the world for the better. Discover our 2018 list below, as well as our lists for 2019 and 2020 on the blog.

Lewis Pugh

Maritime Lawyer, UN Patron of the Oceans (Cape Town, South Africa)

A British-South African maritime lawyer, Lewis Pugh decided to give a voice to the oceans and marine life in need the most protection by swimming in his Speedos. Completing endurance swims in the coldest waters on the planet, he used his feats as publicity stunts to start conversations with world leaders on ocean protection. In 2013, the United Nations appointed him as the first “UN Patron of the Oceans.”  In 2016, he helped negotiate the creation of the largest protected area in the world in the Ross Sea off Antarctica.

Shamnad Basheer

IP Lawyer, Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (Bangalore, India)

Shamnad Basheer is an Indian legal scholar who founded Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA) to Legal Education – working to make legal education accessible for underprivileged students in India, battling upper caste stereotypes in the legal world. As of 2017, 250 students have been trained and 89 have got into law schools, with their fees paid by IDIA. Among these are children of stonecutters, farmers, small shopkeepers and construction labourers – many have an income of only Rs 70,000 per year (£855). They include 21 women, 23  disabled – including some visually impaired – students – and 29 students from lower castes.

Yetnebersh Nigussie

Human Rights Lawyer, Center for Students with Disabilities (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

Yetnebersh Nigussie, a blind lawyer, reacts at her office in Addis Ababa, on October 11, 2017.
Blind Ethiopian activist Yetnebersh Nigussie, who won Right Livelihood Award for her work promoting the rights of people with disabilities, fights for equal rights for the disabled, AFP reports October 25, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Zacharias ABUBEKER (Photo credit should read ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/AFP/Getty Images)

Yetnebersh Nigussie is an Ethiopian lawyer working for human rights based on her own experience of being discriminated against, coming from a “developing country,” being young, a woman – and blind. She is fearlessly pushing for women’s and girls’ rights, inclusive education and a vibrant civil society. In 2005, she founded the Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development (ECDD), along with other prominent Ethiopians, to promote the inclusion of persons with disabilities in different development programmes including economic empowerment. In September 2017, Yetnebersh Nigussie was named a joint winner of the Right Livelihood Award, the “Alternative Nobel Prize,” sharing the honor with Khadija Ismayilova, Colin Gonsalves, and American environmental lawyer Robert Bilott.

Jennifer Robinson

Human Rights Lawyer, International Lawyers for West Papua (London, UK)

Jennifer Robinson is an Australian human rights lawyer who is best known for her work as a pro bono legal adviser to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and founded International Lawyers for West Papua. The latter is helping West Papuans get the right to self-determination, calling on the UN to oversee a new independence referendum after Indonesia organised a contested referendum in 1969. For West Papuans, independence would mean the survival of an entire culture and the preservation of the world’s third-largest rainforest. Jennifer Robinson was named a National Pro Bono Hero in 2008 by the UK Attorney General and the inaugural Young Alumni of the Year by the Australian National University in 2013.

Zannah Mustapha

Lawyer, The Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School (Maidiguri, Nigeria)

Lawyer Zannah Mustapha, mediator for Chibok girls, speaks during an exclusive interview with Reuters in Abuja, Nigeria May 8, 2017. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde – RTS15PET

Zannah Mustapha, a Nigerian lawyer and teacher who negotiated and helped secure the release of more than 100 schoolgirls from Chibok kidnapped by the Boko Haram militant group received the annual Nansen Refugee Award, one of the United Nations’ top awards on January 29, 2018. Mustapha’s The Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School in Maiduguri, which is the capital of Borno state and the centre of Boko Haram violence, stayed open through the insurgency and now provides education to more than 500 students. His school took in children of Nigerian Army soldiers as well as of Boko Haram militants.

Morris Dees

Civil Rights Attorney, Southern Poverty Law Center (Montgomery, AL, USA)

WASHINGTON – JULY 10: Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center speaks about hate crimes at the National Press Club on July 10, 2009 in Washington, DC. Mr. Dees spoke about the recent attack on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The son of an Alabama farmer, Morris Dees grew up in Klan country, in an area cut off from interstates, at a time when whites held land and blacks worked fields and cotton gins. In 1971, he co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that fights for the rights of women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, migrants, homeless people, prisoners, immigrants. It became best known for fighting for integration and against Jim Crow laws; helping minority defendants, some of whom were sitting on death row; and going to bat against the Ku Klux Klan.

Lotfi Maktouf

Corporate Lawyer, Almadanya Foundation (Tunis, Tunisia)

Tunisian lawyer, graduate of Tunis, Paris Sorbonne and Harvard law schools, Lofti Maktouf created the Almadanya Foundation in 2014 after the Tunisian Revolution. Almadanya, which means « the civil » in reference to the civil society, is dedicated to issues around development, education and protection of the environment. Working in partnership with the public and private sector Almadanya designs, finances and implements in Tunisia several innovative programs from school transportation in rural areas, funding of driving license, reforestation in arid and semi-arid regions, to the creation and update of municipal websites and management of art professions’ classification.

Peter Chang

Lawyer, Hong Fook Mental Health Association (Thornhill, Canada)

Dr. Peter Chang was recently appointed to the Order of Ontario for improving access to mental health services for Ontario’s East Asian communities. He established the Hong Fook Mental Health Association in 1982 to provide culturally-sensitive services in five Asian languages, and the Hong Fook Mental Health Foundation in 2001 to address the stigma of mental illness. Graduating from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Hong Kong, he started his career in psychiatry in 1969 and qualified as a psychiatrist in Canada in 1973.  After attending the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto in 1989, he articled at Borden & Elliot (now Borden Ladner Gervais), and started his own law practice. In addition to Hong Fook, he also volunteered with many charities and non-profit organisations.

Julian McMahon

Criminal Lawyer, Reprieve Australia (Melbourne, Australia)

Julian McMahon, a Melbourne barrister, has been appointed a companion of the Order of Australia in 2017 for his dedication to defending human rights, in particular advocating for defendants facing the death penalty. A fierce abolitionist and anti-death penalty advocate, McMahon is the president of Reprieve Australia, a non-profit that develops legal and policy solutions that aim to save prisoners on death row. His work has raised public awareness globally of the death penalty, as more and more countries abolish capital punishment.

Kate Zimmermann

Environmental Lawyer, National Wildlife Federation (Colorado, US)

Kate Zimmerman, a pillar of the Colorado conservation community, was the public lands policy director at the National Wildlife Federation, where she worked on conservation issues in the Rocky Mountain area. Zimmerman’s love for the environment bred success in her career as an environmental lawyer and as a wildlife advocate, and she played a key role in the changing of federal regulations to strengthen the protection of air, land, water and wildlife. She passed away on January 18, 2018.

Marie Shaw

QC, Ice Factor Program (Adelaide, Australia)

Marie Shaw with her daughter

Former District Court judge Marie Shaw, QC founded the Ice Factor, a unique program in Australia that targets “at risk” or disadvantaged youth to help them achieve at school via ice hockey at a rink where paying users help support the Ice Factor program. To raise awareness for The Ice Factor, she is a regular guest speaker on at-risk youth and has created a new Ice Factor program for students with special needs and disabilities.

Jacq and Jacque Wilson

Personal Injury Attorney and Senior Trial Attorney, Advocates For Justice (Modesto, CA, USA)

Jacq and Jacque Wilson, advocates for Justice receive the Living the Dream Award.

Twin brothers Jacq and Jacque Wilson, winners of the Living the Dream Award of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (San Francisco Bay Area), started Advocates for Justice in 2006 to help fight discrimination in Modesto County, where the pair grew up and saw the impact of unjust policies firsthand. Since its founding, AFJ has provided legal representation, mentoring, counselling and other forms of support to Modesto’s students of colour and their families.

Dana Denis-Smith

Lawyer, First Hundred Years (London, UK)

Former solicitor at Linklaters, Dana Denis-Smith, CEO of Obelisk Support, founded the First 100 Years project in 2014 to document the untold stories of women who have shaped the legal profession since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 paved the way for women to become lawyers in the United Kingdom. Though the act also allowed women to sit as magistrates, sit on juries, and receive degrees from university on completion of study, their names have all but disappeared from history books and public archives. The First 100 Years aims to inspire future generations of female lawyers and to promote gender equality in the legal profession.

Allison Stocker

Commercial Lawyer, Ability Housing (Jacksonville, FL, USA)


A lawyer at Akerman LLP, Allison Stocker recently received The Florida Bar’s 2018 “Young Lawyers Division Pro Bono Service Award” for doing more than 500 hours of pro bono work. She aided the legal efforts by the nonprofit Ability Housing to purchase and renovate an area apartment building to create permanent housing for disabled homeless veterans.

Who would you like to nominate as lawyer changing the world for the better?

Email us your nominations at [email protected].