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Kayla Winarsky-Green L’15 on Business and Human Rights

November 04, 2020

The following post has been adapted from a discussion on Wednesday, November 4, 2020 with Kayla Winarsky Green L’15, Advisor on Human Rights and Business at the Danish Institute for Human Rights.


Can you tell us a bit about what your role looks like on a daily basis?

The Danish Institute, or DIHR, is Denmark’s National Human Rights Institution, which is a body that is independent from the government. But it is state-funded and has a mandate of promoting and protecting human rights in Denmark and abroad. We’re a bit unique in that we have this dual mandate of working within Denmark and working internationally. This isn’t usually the case, among other NHRIs.

So of course, coming from the United States, I sit in our International Department within the team of Human Rights and Business. My team partners with corporate actors, advising them on human rights obligations and will also work with state actors, advising them on human rights obligations vis-a-vis businesses in terms of procurement and national action plans. But I came in with this focus on working with corporate actors.

Day to day, my typical activities really depend on the maturity of the of the corporate client regarding human rights and on their current priorities. We’ll start working with a company and engage in a gap analysis. The work is actually quite similar to what I did at a law firm in terms of document review, interviewing stakeholders, interviewing employees, and assessing where they are in terms of their human rights practices. I should also mention that all of the work that we do is underpinned by the United Nations Guiding Principles (UNGPs) on business and human rights, which provides a basic framework of actions that companies and states should be taking in terms of human rights. From there, the type of programs that we’ll engage depends on what the company’s priorities are. This can include an intensive human rights impact assessment or training various staff members within the supply chain, depending on the issues that we spot. We take it from the gap analysis and assess where our actions are most necessary.

You relocated to Copenhagen about two years ago now after several years as an Associate at King and Spalding in New York. Your work there was mostly with managing global anti-corruption investigations and cross-border white collar litigations, but you were also involved in a business and human rights initiative. What can you share about making the transition from private to public, but also starting over again in Copenhagen?

I was at King and Spalding for three years in a group that they refer to as Special Matters and Government Investigations, but is essentially a white-collar practice. Most of the work I was doing related to anti-corruption investigations. This was something that was personally very interesting and attractive to me because I always saw the linkages between corruption and human rights violations.

I also got involved as the founding member of the Business and Human Rights Initiative at King and Spalding, something I hadn’t planned. A partner in international arbitration announced that he was interested in starting this group, held a lunch event at the firm, and I immediately connected with him and told him this was always an interest of mine and that I was interested in assisting him. It really took off from there. For the next year and a half, I worked intensely with him on this and we were just starting to explore the topic of business and human rights.

It’s really a very exciting time within business and human rights. With the Guiding Principles that I mentioned earlier launched in 2011, it’s a very new field. Business actors and governments are becoming increasingly aware of these standards. With the proliferation of national human rights laws, there’s been a lot of very interesting activity.

We started publishing several articles, a couple on topics that we thought were relevant to corporate actors, but of course, related to business and human rights. This really helped me build individual capacity in the field of business and human rights and also gain recognition. So, when I started looking to make the transition, I already had on my résumé that I had undertaken these activities and I had a long list of publications.

I’ve been in Copenhagen for about two years now and it’s been an eye-opening experience and different from what life was like at King and Spalding. In many ways, I was grateful for the skills I had acquired at the firm–diligence, reading, writing. New York law is definitely associated with a certain brand of hard work and I was pleased to bring that with me and be recognized for that at DIHR.

At the same time, the way of working is quite different in Denmark. One of the biggest transitions for me was what they call “flat hierarchy.” There really aren’t the same hierarchical relationships you see in the United States. I was very used to being quiet during meetings. In New York, I worked with one partner who expected me to never speak up in meetings. I came to the Danish Institute and was immediately expected to conduct interviews as though I were a partner and to be vocal in my ideas and preferences. That, at first, was surprising to me, but, overwhelmingly, has been extremely empowering. It’s allowed me to really find my voice and to be expected to vocalize all of my ideas. I’m very pleased to have the firm experience and background. But definitely happy to have made the transition and to be able to take a little bit more ownership.

Do you have any recommendations for questions someone considering a future transition may want to ask in the interview process? Or, could you describe the factors that may come into play when identifying a firm that’s the right fit?

Make sure that anything you’re asking is relevant to the firm itself rather than making the transition. It’s definitely an art to be able to assess these things, but also vocalize them in a way that is welcome in an interview environment.

I think it would be highly appropriate to ask if the firm has a business and human rights initiative. Asking about pro bono practice is also something that’s certainly relevant. Doing diligence on the firm’s international footprint, how many of the matters are transnational, that sort of thing. Assessing whether there will be opportunities for writing and publication.

Let’s discuss the programs that you were part of during law school. For example, you studied abroad through an ad hoc opportunity, the Graduate Institute in Geneva. You were our first student to have done so. While not necessarily focusing explicitly on the school itself, are there any experiences, networking, or coursework that you’d like to share as part of the narrative of the work that you’re doing now?

In many ways, taking on study abroad during law school, can feel like a big hurdle, but was worth doing. It was a very rewarding experience and I was very happy to have undertaken it. It has definitely supported me and helped me with my current career.

First of all, when I was interviewing for this job, I was asked if I had any experience living and working abroad. Most of my colleagues are from Scandinavia or from Europe, so they recognized that they were taking a bit of a risk on somebody that comes from such a different country, in such a different legal position. To be able to say that I had studied abroad, had studied in Europe, was familiar with civil law, with human rights law, was really a huge benefit in terms of having attended the Graduate Institute.

The way of training for law and behaving in class is just so different that I really did feel that I had my eyes opened to this different way of behaving, interacting with colleagues, interacting with professors. That really benefited me as I started to work in a different environment. And as you said, networking was also helpful, meeting colleagues and also making friends. When I moved to Copenhagen, I already had several friends in Malmo and Copenhagen from the Graduate Institute. It was an easy and welcome transition.

The Graduate Institute was your second experience in Geneva, as during your 1L summer, you had also participated in what is now our Global Justice Fellowship, with a placement at UN Watch Geneva. If you could, just briefly provide some insights on your experience.

That was one of my favorite experiences during law school, my initial summer in Geneva. Being the summer right after my 1L year, it was the first time I was able to put my newly minted legal skills into practice and was really a great way to hit the ground running. Having enjoyed that work so much, I knew that I would feel comfortable moving to Europe again and working in a similar environment. It was a great start to my career and also provided me with really incredible experiences that helped bolster both my resume and my confidence as a practitioner. During my summer at the NGO, I had the opportunity to speak at the UN and at the Human Rights Council. I was able to reassure my superiors that I had this covered, I had done it before, and was able to proceed with complete confidence.

As far as something that you could use as a signal to your current employers that you had previous human rights experience, I know that you also undertook the cross-disciplinary certificate for human rights while in law school. Could you share the utility of having that as a qualification itself, but also reflect on any particularly useful or interesting courses that you took as part of that certificate?

I did find that it was beneficial to have this certificate on my CV and LinkedIn and to be able to reassure people that we’re interviewing me, that I wasn’t just completely focused on corporate law because, again, I was coming from a very corporate environment. It was helpful to underpin my assurances that I was committed to human rights.

Gaining this certificate during law school empowered me to select courses that were already interesting to me and to reassure myself that it was in furtherance of the certificate.

One of the classes that stands out was Refugee Law with Professor Chang-Muy. I loved his class. He also accompanied us to Moldova with the International Human Rights Advocates’ (IHRA) spring break trip. So I had a great working relationship with him.

We were in touch also after the Muslim ban just to check in. I was one of the attorneys that volunteered at JFK Airport and was there for thirty-six hours before eventually securing the release of my client. I was in touch with Chang-Muy throughout the process. I don’t think I would have had the capacity to do that without him and was really grateful to have the opportunity to take that class.

For students on the call who might be interested in getting involved in International Human Rights Advocates (IHRA), is there anything that you want to share about experiences that were personally rewarding and/or provided skills that forged the path that you pursued after?

I was a huge fan of IHRA as a student. It was a great fit and a great opportunity to get as much human rights exposure as I could possibly have as a student. I appreciated it as a benefit within itself at the time; but it’s had lasting impacts.

For example, one of the first projects that I worked on as a 1L was in conjunction with the Media Legal Defence Initiative in the United Kingdom. And now, they are partnering with the Danish Institute for Human Rights IHRA for a project that we are working on.

The spring break trip to Moldova was one of the most incredible opportunities I had during law school. To have on the ground exposure and rights-holder engagement at such an early stage was really formative.

It sounds like you really invested in human rights throughout law school. And it sounds like you knew that was something you wanted to engage with more deeply as a career. I was wondering how you navigated the decision to go into corporate law for a few years and what you were thinking about there and when you decided to switch over?

It definitely wasn’t an easy decision and I certainly had my reservations at the time. For where I was financially, and in terms of professional development, big law seemed like it was the best option at the time. That being said, I really wanted to make sure that there was at least some relevance to human rights. I was lucky to find this position at King and Spalding, which enabled me to go straight into that practice group and go into an area focusing on corruption, which was a step in the right direction. Finding the right firm, finding the right practice area made that decision a little bit more palatable. I was surprised when I got to the firm how much I enjoyed my work and how relevant I did find it.

During the three years that I was at King and Spalding, I had a lot of really incredible travel opportunities. I was working on an investigation that took place in West and Central Africa, and I was able to travel there frequently, which was an experience that I didn’t think I would be able to have. That kept me at King and Spalding for a while. But after about three years, I started to see a lot of my colleagues transition out. I knew that I had enough exposure to grow as an anticorruption associate, and also enough exposure to business and human rights that I would be able to add value to an organization focusing on that.

What exactly does business and human rights constitute? It seems like the label means different things for different firms. In your opinion, what does the actual substance of business and human rights alludes to? How can you assess how seriously it’s being taken from one position, institute or firm to another?

That’s a great question and it’s a little difficult because the term “business and human rights,” as you’ve already said, is something that’s broad and vague. Obviously, it connotes this association to the United Nations Guiding Principles on business and human rights. But, it also includes the focus that businesses can have positive or negative impacts.

I think one of the better ways of comprehending this is understanding what business and human rights is NOT. And that is corporate social responsibility. One of the things that we’re constantly explaining and pushing out, is the huge distinction between a business doing positive things that could be associated with human rights (such as building a school) vs. actually streamlining human rights principles and practices within the work that they do. I think one of the best ways of weeding out more disciplined business and human rights practices is making sure that it’s focusing on these diligence principles and neutralizing any negative elements.

Is human rights a common practice area for focus for corporate groups? Was it unusual that you were able to find a position that fit in more with in the corporate space? Or is this something that can be found in a lot of places?

I would say that it’s a growing field. I think that these positions are becoming more common but aren’t necessarily easy to find. As the principles become better known. As national law starts to mature a little bit and embody these human rights principles, you’ll see additional openings. This can also be tied up within the framework of sustainability. We work with a lot of sustainability councils in-house at companies that have started working on business and human rights. The United States is a little bit behind in terms of business and human rights. There are definitely more positions overseas.

Do you have any closing thoughts or anything you’d like to share that you haven’t necessarily had a chance to get to today?

My advice would really be to seek out opportunities that you’re passionate about and that are interesting to you, and it will overwhelmingly be a beneficial thing. I always pursued human rights during law school. Not because I thought it would help me find my dream career, but just because it was something that was interesting to me. Likewise, when I was looking for law firms, it wasn’t because I had a 10-year plan. It was because I wanted to find something that was interesting and a good fit. Then, just by sort of availing myself of opportunities along the way, I was able to build a career that I was proud of. A career that was a little bit different than I ever anticipated.