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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]

Making Work, Work

The Agony Aunt: How do I confront the ethical conduct of a client?

Obelisk recently hosted a discussion on what makes lawyers lose their moral compass. It explored the character traits and situational factors that lead to lawyers condoning and even being complicit in unethical practices. But if you find yourself in a situation where there is a crucial opportunity to put a stop to such behaviour, how do you go about it?

Real life isn’t always like what we see on the screen, with the fearless heroine who puts themselves on the line for the moral good, faces a struggle and is in the end vindicated to great fanfare. People and organisations are much more complicated, and we all have our own fears, doubts and multi-faceted relationships with colleagues and clients. Approaching a situation that has potentially unethical implications is not always a straightforward case of good triumphing over bad, and vindication when it comes can come quietly and without much sense of satisfaction. Ultimately though, unethical practices in an organisation create a toxic environment that impacts on employees and the business as a whole, so it needs to be addressed at the earliest opportunity. If you cannot allow the situation to continue in good conscience then you must take some action, even if that action means removing yourself from the organisation.

The question of whether the conduct is simply ethically wrong or if it is also legally questionable will affect how you approach the problem. Go over what protections are in place for you at both an organisational and governmental level. Remember that reporting such behaviour falls under many laws in place to protect whistle-blowers.

If you take the decision to formally report the behaviour, come armed with suggested means of handling the issue. This prompts person you are reporting to into action as they have to respond to the suggested action to take. It also helps to show you are focusing on the remedy, and that your motive is to help the organisation; to be proactive, and not destructive.

Don’t lose sight of your principles – with explanations and excuses your resolve can become watered down. If you decide that you have done all you can do it may be that you have to permanently reconsider position your relationship with the client, so prepare and scope out other opportunities sooner rather than later. Remember your reputation is much more likely to be tarnished by association with a client/company that conducts itself unethically, more than having left on less than positive terms because you took a stand against the behaviour.

Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? What other advice would you like to see the Attic Agony Aunt provide each month? Let us know [email protected]


Obelisk In Action Trending

The Ethics of Lawyers – What Makes Them Lose Their Moral Compass?

How do lawyers behave when the commercial drives of a business push the boundaries of ethical conduct? This is the core question that was discussed in an insightful talk given on the ethics of lawyers by Professor Richard Moorhead to clients and consultants in The Attic last week.

Discussion around ethics has gained considerable momentum, and it is the focus of recent research following the Tomlinson Report in the wake of the banking crisis and research commissioned by the SRA. I initially came across it in 2016 at the UCL’s Centre for Ethics and Law talk about whether institutional clients threaten lawyer independence, the write up of which you can read here.

Professor Moorhead ‘s research, ‘Legal Risk: Definition, Management and Ethics’ and ‘Mapping the Moral Compass’ explores the growing evidence that the role of the general counsel is increasingly under pressure, and that the professional ethical boundaries are not as well drawn as may be necessary for the increasingly sophisticated world of in-house work.

How lawyers think about their role and how this plays out in their management of situations is necessarily more complicated than an abstract analysis of professional regulation. Professor Moorhead explained that lawyers are not the ‘moral compasses’ of a commercial situation and that professional integrity will often dictate how they will need to conduct themselves. The purpose of the research is not to put lawyers under the microscope, rather an awareness of the challenges facing those working in the in house environment: having to do more with less, the requirement to be more commercially-minded set against increased stress and greater risk. For example, the recent Rolls Royce case is only one of a number of situations where in house lawyers’ conduct has been implicated.

Culture, seniority and bias

Questions were posed about how lawyers frame their role and how it is framed for them. Our audience agreed there are likely be different answers depending on the seniority of the lawyers, whether a GC is on the board and the culture of the organisation. This last point is key. Moorhead’s research suggests that problems are structural in nature (rather than individual ‘bad apples’) and that the culture of an organisation often leads to bad decision making. In particular, there are two observed biases: Team loyalty – where decisions differ depending on who you are acting for (e.g. claimant or defendant) and subjectivity – claiming you are objective in fact leads to a more subjective approach.

If you find those biases surprising, the following findings are food for thought: thinking yourself to be a professional makes one more likely to cheat, according to research by Maryam Kouchaki. Professor Moorhead described the concept of psychology informing ethics taking place, that there is an element of dis-inhibition and moral licencing, for example in the way a question is framed: if something was described as ‘advancing the ideals and aspirations’ rather than being conducted with ‘strict adherence to standards and obligations’ the participants were more likely to cheat.

Personality traits and responses

So what happens when a breach of sanctions is found? Turning to ‘Legal Risk: Definition, Management and Ethics’, Professor Moorhead described the three responses: Defensive – (how to defend), Activist (what happened) and Pro-activist (what needs to happen). Using the Schwartz values survey personality test, the traits of in house lawyers were found to be similar to those who are in private practice. This creates a schematic overview looking at traits such as universalism, benevolence, conformity and tradition. Unsurprisingly, higher benevolence and conformity traits lend themselves to a greater ‘pro-social justice’ outlook than traits of power, achievement, hedonism, and stimulation which are defined as ‘self-enhancing.’ Having undergone personality testing, lawyers were then given a problem centred on advising a company about transactions which may fall foul of a licensing process. Those who advised the client how to handle transactions so that a regulator is less likely to scrutinise them had a higher dominance of achievement and power traits.

Looking at his findings from ‘Mapping the Moral Compass’, this research essentially looked at the ‘ethical inclination’ in in-house lawyers in two ways: their moral attentiveness (the extent to which people deal with problems as moral problems) and moral disengagement (the extent to which people are inclined to morally disengage, to behave unethically without feeling distress). Out of 400 respondents, the results showed:

  • 10-15% experienced elevated ethical pressure. 30-40% sometimes experienced ethical pressure
  • Ethical pressure was highest in public sector organisations
  • 36% agreed that loopholes in the law should be identified that benefit the business
  • 9% indicated saying “no” to the organisation was to be avoided, even when there is no legally acceptable alternative to suggest
  • 65% achieving what their organisation wants has to be their main priority
  • 7% never discussed professional ethics issues with colleagues internally or externally, formally or informally.

In the research, four ethical identities were identified:

  • Capitulators – reasonably morally attentive but are under ethical pressure and are less morally engaged
  • Coasters – do not perceive themselves as under ethical pressure and have moderate-low levels of moral attentiveness but not lower moral disengagement
  • Comfortably Numb – do not perceive high levels of ethical pressure and have low levels of moral attentiveness and higher moral disengagement, the most concerning of the four groups
  • Champions – are under the highest levels of ethical pressure but retain the highest levels of moral attentiveness and the lowest levels of moral disengagement.

In the context of the current regulatory framework, the SRA Handbook places ‘independence and legality’ first and this stands in contrast to the greater emphasis that in-house lawyers place on acting in client’s interest. Unsurprisingly, the Champions reported worst relations with business elements of the employer.

In terms of looking to how the legal sector can benefit from such findings, our audience shared their experience that ethics is not usually discussed at recruitment, let alone taught at law schools and there is little training or advice for in house lawyers. Interestingly. the US has a stronger tradition of teaching ethics at law school.

So what to do? Professor Moorhead recommends American author, Ben W. Heineman Jr, ‘The Inside Counsel Revolution: Resolving the Partner- Guardian Tension’. He also suggests that legal teams (in private practice and in house) discuss case studies to share views about ethical problems. From these discussions, an airing of potential problems and risks is a good foundation to build the supportive organisational infrastructure describe above. Furthermore, discussing what professionalism means to one’s day-to-day conduct helps to internalise ethical behaviour. In short, discussing what it means to be a professional with others rather than merely regarding yourself as a professional can help keep the ethics of lawyers from being lost in the complexities of commercial endeavour.

Professor Richard Moorhead is the Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at UCL Faculty of Laws and Director of Centre for Ethics and Law. He writes a regular blog commenting on the legal profession, Lawyer Watch.