Making Work, Work

The COVID crisis brought on a lot of questionable behaviours in people, but it also brought a lot of extraordinary deeds from people who helped total strangers through rough times. At Obelisk, as the pandemic spread, we started noticing examples of how much good can come from the legal profession. After we published our annual Lawyers who do good list in April 2020, we realised that we should publish a COVID19 edition of “Lawyers who do good” to reflect on how the legal profession got involved positively in times of crisis. Including a rebel legaltech entrepreneur, a music-writing law professor, a frontline supplier lawyer and summer vacation students on a mission, this sampler invites you to discover Law for Good in COVID19 times.

In the community with the song-writing law professor

A University of Calgary legal academic, associate professor Howard Kislowicz, found a creative way to alleviate food insecurity during the pandemic. As his family made efforts to grocery shop less often, the larger stocks of food in his house led him to consider how difficult this time must be for those with limited resources. As a Constitutional Law professor in Canada and music-lover/maker, he took to Twitter and offered to create songs in exchange for donations to local food banks. His main goals were to raise money for food banks, bring a bit of joy to people’s lives, and find a project to keep him feeling positive.

A long-time musician, Howard has been playing with longtime bandmate Shai Korman in the band What Does It Eat and in 2018, the law professor embarked on a long-haul project called “The Most Reasonable Album“, setting to music Canada’s 1982 Constitution Act. His COVID fundraising campaign included a song for a colleague at another law school in Canada about her dog, Scraps, a song for a colleague, a human rights lawyer, who wanted to celebrate her daughter’s relationship with her boyfriend, and a number of songs for people’s children, including some people he’d never met – one of them made a great photo-video using the song as a backing track. His most recent project was a welcome song for the incoming class at the law school where he works – their director of admissions realised that these students would be starting out in a very strange and difficult time and wanted to recognise that.

So far his campaign has raised at least $1,000 in donations to food banks. For a musical taster, you can listen to his song on embracing failure on Spotify and if you want to contribute to his efforts, he confirmed on Twitter that “the offer of a personalized song in exchange for a food bank donation still stands!”

Behind the scenes with the frontline supply lawyer

In April 2020, Golnar Assari, an Obelisk consultant specialised in commercial law, focused her activity on COVID19 work and the supply of face masks/PPEs. At a time when the UK media reported shortages in protective equipment for medical staff and the public, Golnar worked behind the scenes to change that. It all started in 2019 when she began advising a B2B manufacturer of non-woven media used in face masks, providing support in contracts’ review and in implementing the new Medical Device Regulation 2017/745. At the COVID19 outbreak, they asked her for an extended support to face the surge in contracts they were dealing with.

Interestingly, her role quickly moved from contract review to something very different and unexpected. With manufacturing lines already performing at full capacity, the pressure from customers, and even governments, to deliver non-woven products was very high. To cope with demand, her client developed new products and alternative media, eventually installing several new manufacturing lines for finished face masks. As face masks — whether medical devices, PPEs, or general-use masks — are highly regulated, the go-to-market process involved some internal regulatory education. When the client’s sales and marketing teams might have sold a media in a category it did not belong to, she explained the complexities of following quality requirements and obtaining regulatory approvals. This was not always easy as the urgent, somehow chaotic, need for face masks led to customers putting pressure down their supply chain, sometimes with unacceptable requests. In a new industry where players still lacked maturity and knowledge, this was tricky. Golnar’s expertise enabled her to  support the marketing, product development, and quality departments, in understanding the regulatory landscape in the world of medical devices, PPEs and general-use face masks. This included creating appropriate disclaimers, advising on applicable standards and ensuring packaging and labelling rules compliance, as well as clarifying what could or not be done with a certain material based on its properties, or obtaining required CE marking derogations when needed.

For Golnar, this experience was rewarding as well as challenging, as all stakeholders wished to support the crisis as best they could. This experience also opened her eyes on the media and the public’s confusion on the shortage faced in the UK a few months ago and she quickly started advising her family and friends on what EN norms they should be looking for on their face masks. Overall, the most rewarding part was to know that she was contributing, with a trusted high quality supplier, in providing face masks to hospitals across Europe, including to the NHS. She says, “There could not have been a better use of my time during lockdown!”

Tech in the fight for consumer rights with the robot lawyer

Joshua Browder, founder and CEO of DoNotPay, helps people fight big corporations using chatbot technology and AI screening to provide free legal services such as contesting parking tickets, cancelling subscriptions/memberships after the free trial or suing landlords in court. This LegalTech Robin Hood found renewed purpose when the COVID crisis hit, as DoNotPay saw huge spikes in certain legal services categories such as airline refunds or gym membership cancellations, or saw demand for new legal services such as claiming unemployment.

The idea for DoNotPay came to Joshua when he was a software engineering student in San Francisco, accumulating parking tickets. As he couldn’t pay them, he created an app to start contesting them and when his app proved extremely popular with other people, he realised that some areas of consumer rights were largely underserved. He went on to expand the range of services offered by his app to disrupt the legal landscape. His automated tools shifted the balance of power for consumers, offering them to explain in everyday language what the problem was and creating automated legal documents to solve it.

As the COVID19 crisis resulted in increased consumer rights breaches, DoNotPay was quick to counteract with the introduction of new legal services. When local governments issued emergency regulations to address COVID19 issues, few people knew the fine details and a lot of people were taken advantage of. Abuses included tenants being evicted from their homes when they couldn’t pay rent because they lost their job, landlords accessing IRS databases to claim rent from jobless tenants when they received their stimulus package, or airlines treating refund requests by handing out travel credits when nobody wanted travel credits from airlines that could go bankrupt the following year. Also a consequence of COVID19, people were spammed for exploitative miracle cures or random marketing scams, which pushed DoNotPay to create new processes to claim compensation by creating legal document to fight for their rights. In 85% of COVID19 cases, DoNotPay disputes were successful.

What can lawyers learn from Joshua Browder’s experience? Technically, Joshua is convinced that lawyers don’t need to be expert coders to automate any document that they’ve done more than once but the biggest learning comes from his approach. When providing legal services, lawyers should focus on being customer-centric. Law is meant to serve people, a message that has sometimes gotten lost.

Providing probono legal advice with volunteering law students

A group of 40 law students from The University of Manchester are set to volunteer their services during their holidays to help people affected by the coronavirus pandemic. From Monday, 15 June, the students will be providing written and video advice online in five areas of law particularly impacted by the virus – carers, family, employment, consumer and housing. The University’s Justice Hub and Legal Advice Centre has long provided vacation schemes but this year’s has been moved online because of the pandemic.

“The scheme is giving 40 School of Social Science students the opportunity to have a virtual vacation scheme placement with the aim of producing short information videos to help the public in key areas that have been impacted by Covid-19,” said Claire McGourlay, Professor of Legal Education. “Solicitors, barristers and a video editing company Video Cake are also all giving up their time for free to help the students to produce the videos.”

For more information, you can follow Manchester University’s Justice Hub here:

Do you want to share other COVID19 stories in the legal world? Email us here.

Photo credits:

  • Howard Koslowicz – University of Calgary
  • Golnar Assari – Golnar Assari
  • Joshua Browder – Twitter @jbrowder1
  • Manchester Justice Hub – Manchester University – School of Social Sciences
The Legal Update

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. Most of them were nominated by colleagues, others by clients or by work partners. After our inaugural list of lawyers who are changing the world in 2018, the 2019 list is heavy on lawyers who deal with urgent crises threatening our society and our planet – climate change tops the list of urgent battles to be fought, but social mobility and diversity aren’t very far behind.

We could not include all the nominations but thank all of you who contacted us to recognise exceptional lawyers; we are in awe of the impressive nominations we received. Without further ado, here is the 2019 list of lawyers who are changing the world for the better.

Piya Muqit

Legal aid lawyer, Hong Kong

Lawyers who are changing the world

The executive director of the Justice Centre, a local non-profit organisation providing legal support to asylum-seekers in Hong Kong, Piya Muqit is the daughter of economic migrants who fled Bangladesh during the 1971 civil war to start a new life in Scotland. After serving as the head of policy and advocacy at UNICEF UK as well as senior legal adviser at Freedom From Torture, Piya Muqit raises awareness on issues concerning refugees in Hong Kong and presses for fairer legislation and policies. Her ambition is to expand the organisation into a regional NGO leader in human rights.

Victoria Anderson

Commercial lawyer, London (UK)

Lawyers who are changing the world

Victoria Anderson is a solicitor in London who is passionate about education and diversity in the legal profession. After volunteering as a group leader for a student project at City Law School about social mobility and helping their local community, the project became a charity called Big Voice and she became CEO of Big Voice London. This social mobility charity seeks to engage young people from non-traditional backgrounds in law and legal policy. Big Voice London runs projects for young people each year, including: a Mooting Competition and introduction to the legal system in association with the UK Supreme Court, a summer school discussing growing topics of law, the country’s only Model Law Commission, plus seminars, workshops and lectures.

Rebecca Perlman

Pro bono lawyer, London (UK)

Blending business focus and corporate social responsibility, Rebecca Perlman’s job is to fight poverty and inequality – literally. While most law firms offer pro bono work to their lawyers as a side hustle, Rebecca Perlman harnessed her firm’s corporate connections and global reach to transform its pro bono work into a profit centre by supporting government and NGO initiatives in developing countries. She is also the director of the African Commercial Law Foundation, a trustee of the Prisoners’ Advice Service, a member of Oxfam’s Lawyers Against Poverty Steering Committee, co-founder of the UK Sierra Leone Pro Bono Network, and a member of the European Banks Alliance Against Human Trafficking Expert Working Group.

Angela Hayes

White collar criminal lawyer, London (UK)

Lawyers who are changing the world

For a decade, Angela Hayes has provided invaluable pro bono support to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). This international NGO fights environmental crimes by conducting detailed investigations into activities such as illegal logging and wildlife trafficking, and by publishing its findings as reports. Angela Hayes, partner at a global law firm, plays a vital role reviewing these materials for potential defamation action. On the few occasions when EIA reports are challenged, Angela has given rapid and effective advice on how to respond, thereby ensuring the situation is resolved without developing into formal legal challenges (such as EIA being sued for libel). EIA’s investigations and reports make a demonstrable impact in curtailing environmental crime, for example triggering the recent arrest of major ivory tusk traffickers by the Chinese authorities.

Chris Daw

Fraud, regulatory and criminal barrister, London (UK)

Lawyers who are changing the world

Social mobility is not often associated with barristers in the United Kingdom. After starring in a film on access to the profession for The One Show, Chris Daw became a role model for aspiring barristers from non-traditional backgrounds. By speaking up on social mobility, becoming a mentor and setting a mentoring campaign, he has made a real difference for lawyers from ‘ordinary’ backgrounds who thought they would never succeed in the legal profession.

Lauree Coci

Dispute lawyer, Perth (Australia)

Lawyers who are changing the world

In addition to being pro bono coordinator in the Perth office of her firm, Lauree Coci was recognised for her professional excellence and contribution to the legal profession and wider community at the Lawyers Weekly 30 Under 30 Awards in 2018. She was an early advocate for anti-slavery legislation in Australia, assisting Walk Free Foundation with submissions to the parliamentary inquiry and making recommendations to the Attorney-General’s Department to shape the Modern Slavery Act that came into effect in January 2019.

Sonya Bedford

Energy lawyer, Exeter (UK)

A partner and head of energy at her law firm, Sonya Bedford is passionate about renewable energies. Believing that renewable energy can take the UK to energy independence, she has been recognised for her renewable energy efforts in the southwest of England as a Community Energy Champion at the Community Energy Awards, Energy Champion at the Energy Institute Awards and Environmental Champion at the Devon Environmental Business Initiative Awards. From climbing wind turbines to supporting her village in going Carbon Zero, to hosting Facebook Live sessions and decorating her local green area in Exeter with mini windmills, her aim is to continuously raise awareness of climate change. She established the UK’s first grid consortium and grid sharing agreements for communities, and in 2018 was awarded an MBE for services to community energy.

Jennifer Chika Okafor

Lawyer, UK/Nigeria

Lawyers who are changing the world

Jennifer Chika Okafor is a solicitor who regularly offers her services free of charge to people within the African community. She has taken on many institutions and individuals and won on a paid or pro bono basis. Jenny is a Women’s rights advocate and activist. She is the founder of the Nigerian Women in Diaspora Leadership Forum (NWDLF), a group which helps women realise and utilise their leadership potential. Jenny is currently concentrating on women and girls rights issues with the aim of assisting them in finding their places in society early in life without fear and minimum difficulties. Under her leadership, the NWDLF has spearheaded the fight against child marriages in Nigeria.

Carroll Muffett

President and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, Washington D.C. (USA)

Lawyers who are changing the world

A recognised expert on the international law of wildlife and timber trade, Carroll Muffett is an outspoken advocate for the environment and has authored numerous articles and textbook chapters on national and international environmental policy and on the trade and environment debate. CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, a nonprofit organisation that uses the power of law to protect the environment, he is a leading voice in holding corporations accountable for climate change.

Sophie Marjanac

Company and financial/climate damage lawyer, London (UK)

Lawyers who are changing the world

Passionate about the power of the law to protect people and the environment, Sophie Marjanac is project lead, Climate Accountability, for ClientEarth and was previously a senior lawyer in Australia where she specialised in environmental and planning law. She has also worked in the remote Torres Strait region, where she undertook litigation, negotiation and advocacy on behalf of Indigenous Australian landowners. At ClientEarth, she works on novel climate litigation strategies around the world with a particular focus on the risks of climate change to private actors and the intersection of environmental and corporate law.

Roda Verheyen

Environmental lawyer, Hamburg (Germany)

Lawyers who are changing the world

Specialising in environmental and international law, Roda Verheyen is a champion of climate justice in Germany. In 2002, she co-founded the Climate Justice Programme to support climate-related litigation worldwide. In 2017, she represented a Peruvian farmer and mountain guide Saul Luciano Lliuya in an appeal to the high regional court of Hamm against energy giant RWE (they won). In order to hold authorities accountable for climate change, she seeks compensation or stronger climate action through the courts and currently represents ten families in a lawsuit against EU institutions, dubbed the People’s Climate Case. She will argue in the European General Court that the EU must adopt a more ambitious 2030 climate target to defend their human rights – drawing on the UN assessment of the science.

Congratulations to the 2019 cohort – they are absolutely amazing and inspiring!