Emma Lindsay: Closing the Justice Gap Locally and Globally

2024 Feature Nominations

Attorney at Law Magazine recently sat down with Emma Lindsay to talk about her career and pro bono involvement following her appointment as the First Global Pro Bono Practice Leader at Withersworldwide. Lindsay is a partner at the firm and is an experienced leader of the international arbitration and public international law teams. Lindsay has practiced international law in New York for over 15 years. 

AALM: What inspired you to pursue a career in law?

EL: By the time I was 8 years old, I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer. There weren’t any lawyers in my family so perhaps it was the influence of seeing lawyers on television – L.A. Law was a couple of seasons in by then.  From a young age I was drawn to the law’s capacity to effect positive change and lawyers’ ability to give voice to the marginalized. Having followed a career path I chose as an elementary school kid, I now listen very carefully to what jobs my own children say they want to do when they grow up!

AALM: Can you share a particularly interesting or memorable case you’ve worked on in your career?

EL: I have had the privilege of working on many fascinating and important cases over the course of my career so far – recent examples include the Dobbs case at the U.S. Supreme Court where we filed an amicus brief on behalf of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Health, the International Criminal Court’s investigation of human rights abuses in Venezuela and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine where I have been part of a task force supporting Ukraine’s efforts to seek justice for war crimes committed by Russia.

But there are also the pro bono cases that don’t make the headlines. As a young associate joining a big law firm in New York City, I started working on pro bono asylum cases – in part because providing pro bono legal services to vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees felt personally important to me as an immigrant to the United States myself and in part because I wanted to continue to develop my legal skills in a field involving international law. Those sorts of cases have provided a throughline for my pro bono practice over the last two decades.

Today, at Withers, I work with younger colleagues on pro bono asylum cases and it gives me great pride to see them put their legal skills in the service of pro bono clients who have fled persecution in their home countries for safety in America. For example, Withers is currently acting for a young man from an African country whose family was politically opposed to the ruling regime in his country, his father was disappeared, his mother was murdered, and he was imprisoned and tortured before he was able to flee the country.

AALM: What does it mean to you to be appointed as the First Global Pro Bono Practice Leader, and how do you plan to leverage this role to advance pro bono work within the legal industry?

EL: As lawyers we have a responsibility to effect positive change in the world and in our communities. In addition to the individuals and communities Withers serves through our pro bono program, the firm’s pro bono work is important to our clients, our colleagues and our culture as a firm. My appointment as the firm’s first Global Pro Bono Practice Leader demonstrates Withers’ commitment to pro bono work within the firm’s broad goals of helping to effect change through rethinking, challenging the status quo and turning passion into positive progress.

AALM: Can you share any initiatives or projects you have spearheaded or plan to initiate in your new role?

EL: Internally at Withers, I hope to see the firm increase its pro bono hours. There is a strong pro bono culture at the firm but, as with any firm, there is always room to improve. Externally, I hope to grow and strengthen our collaborations with pro bono partner organizations operating at both locally and globally. Locally we support a number of legal services organizations in our communities. Globally our partners include organizations such as the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Clooney Foundation for Justice.

AALM: How do you see pro bono work evolving in the coming years, and how do you plan to stay at the forefront of these changes?

EL: There is an increasing need for pro bono services locally and globally and Withers is committed to helping underserved and vulnerable communities tackle social problems and fight injustice. The firm’s global pro bono program spans our offices and practice areas. All our lawyers – from summer associates to senior partners – have opportunities to work on a wide variety of projects that appeal to their interests and experience. Our pro bono work supports a range of important social causes including human rights, the environment, gender justice, racial equity, education and poverty reduction.

AALM: How do you think the legal industry as a whole can better prioritize and support pro bono work?

EL: I think prioritizing pro bono work requires both a commitment from law firms and a commitment from individual lawyers. For example, Withers strongly encourages all our lawyers to contribute time to at least one pro bono project each year, working to ensure that the diverse strengths and expertise of our teams are harnessed in our efforts to shrink the justice gap.

AALM: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the legal profession today, and how do you see them being addressed?

EL: I think that the legal profession faces many of the same challenges that are affecting other businesses globally – the ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty and rising costs among them. Lawyers are resilient and adaptable and those qualities will ensure the continued strength and vitality of the profession.

AALM: How are you involved in the local community?

EL: My pro bono work with the City Bar Justice Center in New York City is focused on helping to meet the legal needs of New Yorkers who would not otherwise be able to afford representation. Beyond pro bono, I am a proud parent to two New York City public school students and had the privilege of serving on the board of trustees of a local charter school in my home borough of Brooklyn for several years, including as board chair. My family and I are committed members of the Park Slope Food Coop, which is one of the oldest and largest active food cooperatives in the United States, and keen supporters of New York City’s municipal composting program.

AALM: What skills do you think are essential for success in the legal profession, and how do you cultivate those skills?

EL: I think the best lawyers combine realism and idealism. To some extent this involves balancing law as a profession and law as a business. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put the question this way during a speech at Harvard in 1886: “How can the laborious study of a dry and technical system, the greedy watch for clients and practice of shopkeepers’ arts, the mannerless conflicts over often sordid interests, make out a life?” The answer Justice Holmes gave to that question remains an inspiration to me, linking law with life: “I say—and I say no longer with any doubt—that a man may live greatly in the law as well as elsewhere; that there as well as elsewhere his thought may find its unity in an infinite perspective; that there as well as elsewhere he may wreak himself upon life, may drink the bitter cup of heroism, may wear his heart out after the unattainable.”

AALM: What advice do you have for young lawyers just starting out in their careers?

EL: Learn all you can, don’t be afraid to ask questions, be prepared to step outside your comfort zone, take ownership of your career from day one and, as Justice Holmes said, live greatly in the law. Doing pro bono work can provide opportunities for each of these things.

AALM: Tell us a little about your life outside the office.

EL: I am a parent to twins, a girl and a boy who just turned 10. I am a beekeeper with a rooftop hive at home in Brooklyn. I am a reader and a theatergoer who loves riding horses and walking her dogs. I am of course many other things too – a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a neighbor – all of which contribute to the perspective that I bring to life and work.

AALM: What is something your colleagues would be surprised to learn about you?

EL: I had a pet Tasmanian devil as a child, briefly – after my sister and I rescued it after it had been injured somehow and before it recovered enough to escape by climbing a tree to flee the enclosure that we had carefully constructed for it. This was during a very formative period in my childhood when my family and I lived on a farm in Tasmania, Australia. I have been fortunate to live in several countries in the Asia Pacific region and in different parts of Europe, as well as the UK – my home country – and the US where I have lived for nearly 20 years.

AALM: Looking back on your career so far, is there anything you’d change?

EL: My career, like everyone’s I expect, has certainly had some unanticipated twists and turns but looking back I wouldn’t change a thing. For example, when I finished my master’s degree at New York University School of Law, I very much wanted to stay in New York City. But the job market was challenging then – this was in the early 2000s, following September 11 and the dot-com crash – and I ended up going home to the UK and lived with my sister in London for a while before an opportunity came up with a small human rights organization in Geneva to work on gender, peace and security issues in Africa under the leadership of a brilliant lady from Senegal who ran the organization. So off to Switzerland I went. That job was my first experience of working in international human rights and a stepping stone to the practice I have today.

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