20th Anniversary Alumni Reflections: Berglind Halldorsdottir Birkland

Berglind Halldorsdottir Birkland, smiling, sitting with arm resting on table in front of her

In celebration of the Human Rights Program's 20th Anniversary, Berglind Halldorsdottir Birkland (B.A. Anthropology '06) recently shared with us her reflections on her time with the HRP and the impact it had on her career path.

Human Rights Program (HRP): What did you do with the Human Rights Program while you were a student at the University of Minnesota?

Berglind Halldorsdottir Birkland (BHB): I was first exposed to the Human Rights Program during the fall of my junior year when I took Barbara Frey's class on International Human Rights Law.  The class was fascinating!  I loved learning about the human rights system from someone who knew it first hand and had done real, impactful work.  I was also blown away by my fellow students, some of whom have become lifelong friends.  The class really whetted my appetite for the law.  The textbook Barb used was a genuine law school case book and we had joint sessions with students at the law school.  I was hooked and felt like I had found a perfect career path!

The following semester I took Barb's Human Rights Internship class and landed an internship at the Refugee and Immigrant Program at the Advocates for Human Rights.  As an intern, I interviewed and screened asylum seekers and researched country conditions.  I loved learning about the asylum system first-hand and getting to interact with some of the many beautiful human beings who have come to Minnesota seeking protection from persecution.  The course work complemented my internship perfectly by providing a space for me to reflect with my fellow students who were also all working at different Twin Cities organizations.  In addition to giving all of us some real hands-on experience, the class was designed to expose us to the practicalities of public interest work—including through a simulated grant application process.  

The following summer, and over the course of my entire senior year, I had the great pleasure of working directly with Barb and Rochelle at the Human Right Program’s as Program Assistant.  In that role, I helped organize events related to human rights, including a large international conference on human trafficking and a regional training on UN mechanisms.  I helped develop curriculum for graduate-level courses on human rights, administered the graduate minor in human rights, and conducted research on various topics including human trafficking, rendition, and immigrant detention.

HRP: How did your work with the HRP affect your career path?

BHB: I absolutely loved my time at the U but a lot of what I was studying felt pretty theoretical and it wasn’t immediately clear to me how I was going to translate what I was learning into action.  The courses I took through the Human Rights Program introduced me not only to human rights but to the practice of law more generally.  I ended up applying for law school and moving to New York City to go to NYU Law School.  During my time in law school, I was able to build on what I learned at the Human Rights Program and gain exposure to other areas of international law, including international humanitarian law, private international law, international commercial arbitration, international trade law, and international investment law.  I also had the opportunity to continue providing direct legal services to immigrants by participating in NYU’s Immigrant Defense Clinic and by interning with the immigration unit at the NYC Legal Aid Society.

HRP: What are you doing now?

BHB: I've spent the last decade at Debevoise & Plimpton, a law firm in New York City, where I’m a senior associate in their international dispute resolution group.  My work consists primarily of representing parties in investor-state disputes arising out of bilateral investment treaties before the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes and other international fora. I also represent parties in international commercial arbitrations arising under contracts that are typically governed by bodies of law other than the United States.  One of the things I love about my job is that I actually get to practice international law on a daily basis--and in some cases I feel like I am actually contributing to the development of international law because of the high-profile and precedential value of the cases I'm litigating.   

I've also made sure to maintain a strong pro bono practice, representing asylum seekers, domestic violence victims, and other immigrants seeking protection in the United States.  Over the course of my career, I’ve secured relief from removal and other protections for clients from Chile, Cote d’Ivoire, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Ireland, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Nigeria, Sudan, Trinidad, and Tibet and I am currently representing clients from Jamaica, Poland, and Russia who are seeking status in the United States because of domestic violence or persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation.


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