MLaw alumna fulfills dream of helping refugees

By Jordan Poll
U-M Law

MLaw alumna Lara Finkbeiner found her life’s purpose at 17 when she met Refika, a Bosnian refugee looking for sanctuary in the United States to escape her war-torn country. Refika opened Finkbeiner’s eyes to the struggles of a people forced to leave their country for their own safety. “I helped her learned English, but Refika helped me figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” Finkbeiner said. Now, 15 years later and three years into her role as deputy legal director of the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), Finkbeiner finally is fulfilling her longstanding dream of helping people like Refika.

Because Finkbeiner knew from a young age that she wanted to pursue a career in refugee advocacy, she reached out for guidance from one of the world’s foremost refugee scholars:
Professor James Hathaway, the James E. and Sarah A. Degan Professor of Law at Michigan. “I emailed Professor Hathaway as a teenager. He offered to get coffee with me while I was at Michigan for Undergraduate Preview Weekend,” she said. “That left a strong impression on me.”

It wasn’t just the mentorship from Professor Hathaway that drew Finkbeiner to Michigan Law. There also was the vibrancy of the public interest community. “I remember coming to the Law School during my first year of undergrad at Michigan. Walking through the basement, seeing all the student groups, particularly the refugee advocacy student group—I just knew I wanted to come back here someday,” she said.

Finkbeiner took a couple of years to explore after earning her bachelor’s degree in history. She spent a year in Ecuador on a Fulbright Scholarship and earned her master’s degree in forced migration at the University of Oxford. In 2010, she joined the Michigan Law family and was involved in both the General Clinic and the Human Trafficking Clinic before traveling to South Africa for an externship in Cape Town, where she worked directly with refugees every day.

She spent her 1L summer at the AIRE Centre in London doing human rights work in Europe, and received a Dean’s Public Service Fellowship that enabled her to spend her 2L summer with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “which had always been a dream of mine,” she said. After graduating from Michigan Law—where she received the Hessel E. Yntema Award for distinction in international and comparative law—Finkbeiner went to IRAP as an Equal Justice Works Fellow. “When I started my career, I felt like I was walking in with a lot of experience and expertise under my belt. It really gave me a boost,” she said.

Finkbeiner, who this spring, returned to campus to give keynote remarks at the annual Public Service Banquet, plays many roles beyond that of deputy legal director. Day-to-day responsibilities can range from speaking at a fundraising event to mentoring in-house attorneys. However, despite her busy schedule, she still makes time to take on a few cases of her own. “I have had clients who are just incredible people. They, for whatever reason, were stuck in the bureaucratic process. To be able to get them out and to safety, then to meet them in person for the first time after having developed this close relationship over the years—it’s hard to describe what it feels like to make such a difference in a person’s life.”