An externship in South Africa teaches law student about life as a lawyer

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By Jordan Poll
Michigan Law

It was during a phone call—a hushed conversation in a tiny library in South Africa—when Katie Joh realized she already had begun her career as an agent of change. As an extern during her 2L year at the University of Michigan Law School, Joh spoke with the principal of a junior secondary school in the small town of Libode about school furniture. “He was so excited to receive a new shipment of chairs and materials to build more classrooms,” says Joh, recalling the principal’s contagious delight. That moment not only changed her perspective on what it means to be a practicing lawyer, but also reaffirmed her passion for it.

With a minor in education and a regard for child welfare, Joh’s background prepared her well for the three-month externship in South Africa, and for law school. “I really liked that Michigan has this vibrant public interest community with a commitment to experiential learning,” says Joh, now a 3L. She came to Michigan determined to pack the next three years with a broad range of experiences, and went on to join the Pediatric Advocacy Clinic and the Student Rights Project. She also set her sights abroad.

“I wanted to get outside of my context for a little bit, and yet still be in the legal world, to have more perspective on what does and doesn’t make sense about the American legal system,” Joh says. Wanting to continue her study of education and child welfare law, she reached out to the Grahamstown branch of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), an organization in South Africa that was started more than 30 years ago to represent people who were being tried for violations of apartheid law. Since that time—and especially during the past 10 years—the organization has focused on education litigation, specifically issues involving education access for the rural schools of the Eastern Cape (one of the poorest provinces in South Africa).

During apartheid, rural schools were denied infrastructure, textbooks, teachers, food, and more. It was not uncommon for the classroom experience to involve sitting under a tree with dozens of other children in the hot sun, taught by a single teacher without any textbooks, desks, chalkboards, or even lunch. With the ratification of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa in 1996, every citizen gained the right to a basic education. This brought to light the question of what it means for the state to provide citizens with meaningful access to education.

Shortly before Joh’s arrival, the LRC won a precedent-setting ruling that declared the State responsible for providing adequate classrooms and furniture to the schools in and around the city of Mthatha. In subsequent litigation, the LRC received permission to monitor and implement this judgment, which it did by visiting each school and encouraging it to report its number of students and pieces of furniture.

One of Joh’s first experiences with the LRC involved traveling to the rural schools near Mthatha. Most of these schools have been involved in education-related litigation for the past decade. “They are somewhat inured at this point,” Joh says. “That being said, they recognize that litigation is a big part of progressing education reform.” During her visits, she assisted her managing attorney by having conversations with school administrators about their rights following the recent judgment.

She also listened to the schools’ many concerns—the biggest being overcrowding. Since the schools’ interest in pursuing this direction of litigation coincided with her arrival in South Africa, Joh jumped at the opportunity to help. She began building upon the legal groundwork laid by the LRC by drafting an initial demand letter to the provincial Department of Education.

“The practice of the law—the actual mechanisms, interpersonal skills, writing skills, and logical skills that you need—is the same even if the exact law is very different. I developed a much better sense of that and a better intuition through my experience in South Africa,” Joh says. She continued traveling to the rural schools around Mthatha with her colleagues, once visiting nine in one day. They identified the locations that had infrastructure problems and encouraged them to join the LRC’s complaint. Joh collected information from students, teachers, and administrators and wrote affidavits that were filed with the complaint.

Of the many schools Joh visited, one stands out. St. Patrick’s Junior Secondary School in Libode, outside of Mthatha, has become well-known for its discipline and for producing students who perform well on tests. Parents throughout the surrounding area send their children to be educated there. The school couldn’t keep up with the ever-increasing number of students they received, resulting in overcrowding. “I remember walking in and they [the learners, as students are referred to in South Africa] were sitting with their backpacks on their laps because there was no space,” Joh says. “Even if they had desks, they wouldn’t be able to fit them in.”

She quickly became involved and worked closely with the school and its principal to fight for the infrastructure they needed. When the effort led to additional classrooms and furniture coming to the school, Joh and the principal had their celebratory phone call.

“It was a moment for me: That I, this law student, and the words I typed into my computer—in a little house and even smaller library—could actually lead to a kid somewhere having a classroom to learn in,” says Joh, who plans to join Legal Services of Northern California. “I was able to make a change in this one way, and I hope it will be the first of many such moments in my career.”