Empowering Others Through the International Human Rights Clinic
“I love the idea of building something new,” said Gwynne L. Skinner, who joined Willamette University College of Law in August to help launch the school’s first law clinic focused on international human rights. “I loved the idea of coming to Willamette and starting a clinic focused on international human rights. Students are hungry for it; they want this type of practice.
“International human rights clinics should be available to students all across the country,” she added. “It should be available to all law students, not just those in New York or Washington, D.C.”
An assistant professor of clinical law, Skinner brings considerable experience in the areas of international human rights, refugee law, civil rights and clinical practice to the school’s new clinic, one of six advanced legal education offerings available through Willamette’s Clinical Law Program. The new international human rights clinic complements the college’s specialized Certificate Program in International and Comparative Law, which was designed to prepare students to meet the challenges of legal careers in an increasingly global profession.
Skinners’ own interest in human rights developed at an early age in rural Iowa. “Even at a young age, I had a keen awareness of global poverty and hunger,” she said. “By the time I went to college, I was already interested in foreign policy and human rights issues. Political science was a natural choice for a major.”
Skinner earned a B.A. in political science at the University of Northern Iowa and graduated with highest honors. She then enrolled in a joint degree program in law and American studies at the University of Iowa. Skinner, who sold her only possession of value — a camera — to pay for the LSAT, paid her own way through school. The sacrifice paid off, and she earned a M.A. and J.D. with high distinction.
Following graduation, she accepted a position with the U.S. Department of Justice Honors Program. The highly competitive program enables gifted young lawyers to begin their careers in the Justice Department, despite having limited experience. After gaining critical courtroom practice in Washington, D.C., Skinner was hired as a criminal prosecutor in the King County Prosecutor’s Office in Washington state.
She then entered private practice as an attorney with the law firm of Frank & Rosen LLP, where she represented individuals and employees in the areas of employment law and civil rights. She went on to practice with Dorsey & Whitney LLP, focusing primarily on employment law, ERISA fiduciary law and complex commercial litigation.
“Civil litigation was intellectually stimulating, but the substance of it never enthralled me; it didn’t feed my soul the way human rights work does,” said Skinner, who developed an active pro bono and public interest litigation practice while working at Dorsey. “I always tell students to follow their dreams and their heart, but that they need to be practical. I knew I needed experience in a big firm to get where I wanted in the future.”
Skinner’s commitment to “paying her dues” in private practice paid off when she connected with the Center for Justice & Accountability, a San Francisco-based international human rights organization dedicated to ending torture and human rights abuses around the world and advancing the rights of survivors to seek truth, justice and redress. “I contacted them about doing pro bono work,” she said. “Once I had civil litigation experience and had something to offer, I began working with them on human rights cases.”
In early 2003, Skinner left private practice to establish the Public Interest Law Group PLLC, a firm dedicated to providing quality legal services to individuals and groups of varying financial means. The firm’s key practice areas include employment discrimination, wage claims, and human and civil rights issues. Skinner’s practice focused primarily on international human rights.
Her work did not go unnoticed. In 2005, she was named one of Seattle’s Top Lawyers in the area of civil rights by Seattle Magazine. That same year, she received the Law and Justice Award from Hate Free Zone for her representation of Somali workers who successfully challenged religious discrimination at a large sausage manufacturing company. She earned the title Super Lawyer from Washington Law & Politics in 2006 and 2007.
Before long, Seattle University School of Law came calling. “Seattle University had just started its human rights clinic,” she explained. “The law school hired me to serve as practitioner-in-residence at the clinic and asked me to bring my international human rights practice with me.” During this time, Skinner also attended Oxford University in England and earned an M.St. (LL.M. equivalent) in International Human Rights Law.
While working at the law clinic, Skinner took on a pro bono case that received international attention. In March 2005, she filed a case with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York against Caterpillar Inc. Corrie v. Caterpillar charged Caterpillar with aiding and abetting war crimes and other serious human rights violations on the grounds that the company provided bulldozers to the Israeli Defense Forces, knowing they would be used unlawfully to demolish homes and endanger civilians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Numerous international human rights organizations and the United Nations have condemned the demolitions as a violation of international humanitarian law.
Working on human rights issues with students in the clinic helped Skinner discover an innate love of teaching. “The transition from practitioner to teacher felt very natural to me,” she said. “I get a great deal of happiness from being able to make a difference in students’ lives. I want to make their legal education experience as full as possible. I want to help them do good work.
“As a clinical law professor, my job is not to be in charge of the case, but to guide — to teach students to think about the decisions they’re making,” she explained. “When you’re a practitioner working with young lawyers, you’re in charge of the case and others assist you. That model doesn’t work in a clinic setting, which requires a more reflective practice.
“Students need to take the time to reflect on the work they’re doing so that they become better lawyers in the future,” she added. “That’s so important; we need more capable lawyers, particularly good human rights lawyers.”
Skinner’s enthusiasm for teaching was clearly evident to W. Warren H. Binford, who helped bring Skinner to Willamette. “I am extremely pleased that Professor Skinner has joined our Clinical Law Program,” said Binford, director of the Clinical Law Program. “Professor Skinner has made a significant impact everywhere she has practiced law. We feel extremely fortunate to have her join our program and are looking forward to working with her as she continues to contribute to the advancement of human rights and clinical legal education for years to come.”
Skinner sees her role in Willamette’s new international human rights law clinic as two-fold. “I want to teach the substance of international human rights law, as well as to help students understand strategy and improve their legal analysis and fact-finding skills,” she said. “But I also want to teach students to listen. Lawyers are trained to push their emotions aside and to fix problems, but listening is a big part of human rights practice.
“I’m a fierce litigator, but there’s more to dealing with human rights cases than solving legal issues,” she added. “As a lawyer, I serve people who suffer human rights abuses. As someone who serves them, I also need to empower them. One way to do that is to sit and actively listen to them tell their story and describe their pain. To do so helps free their spirit and empowers them.
“The old way of thinking is, ‘I don’t want to hear your pain.’ But law has to become more holistic. I want to help students understand this is another way to help people. That just by listening, they can make a difference to the client, the person, they serve.”
Gwynne L. Skinner
“I’m a fierce litigator, but there’s more to dealing with human rights cases than solving legal issues. As a lawyer, I serve people who suffer human rights abuses. As someone who serves them, I also need to empower them.”