A Day in the Life of / Life / Life after law school

A Day in the Life of… a lawyer in Afghanistan


Name: Naomi Johnstone
Job title:  ICLA Specialist (Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance)
Employer, city/country: Norwegian Refugee Council, Afghanistan
Length of time in current role: 6 months
Law studies: Graduated LLB (Hons: first class) in 2009, then graduated PhD (Law, Peace and Conflict Studies), with “exceptional” award in 2016, both at the University of Otago.

Describe a typical day in your job?

While a typical day in my job is often based at our office in Kabul, I am lucky enough to spend around at least a third of my time in the ‘field’ supporting our 110 staff, located in nine offices across Afghanistan, who are the core of the national ICLA programme that I lead.

Last week I was visiting our team in Jalalabad, which is in the Eastern region of Afghanistan, near the border to Pakistan. One morning I went to two peri-urban areas to visit some of our beneficiaries. The Norwegian Refugee Council’s ICLA programme focuses on housing, land and property rights, as well as legal identity, for displaced people. One of the beneficiaries I visited had been assisted by our legal staff to claim her inheritance rights to land, soon after she returned as a refugee-returnee from Pakistan due to police harassment. Even though under Afghanistan state law, as well as Sharia’ah law, women are entitled to receive land as inheritance, there are significant cultural barriers to doing so. In this case, the women’s brothers initially refused to recognise her rights to the land or compensation. Our lawyers managed to finally reach her preferred settlement with them, which provided a cash payment in return for her share of the land, so that she could buy land elsewhere.

Following this, I sat with our legal training team and discussed how we improve our training methodologies to be more participatory, including with community elders who make many of the decisions in local communities in Afghanistan on property and other disputes. We also discussed how we can empower women to step into dispute resolution leadership roles and better understand their rights to housing, land and property.

In the afternoon I facilitated a regional consultation workshop with members of the government, United Nations, and International NGOS on a new legal framework that I have been involved with drafting that will guide the provision of state land to vulnerable displaced people. I did this in my role as one of the co-leads, together with UN-Habitat and UNHCR, of the national Housing, Land and Property Task Force for Afghanistan. This is a coordination mechanisms used globally in humanitarian contexts.

Throughout the day in Jalalabad, I saw regular military movements – both in the and on the ground. I heard some explosions and occasional gunfire. This is common given the region experiences ongoing fighting between international military forces, the Taliban, Afghan national forces and ISIS/Daesh.


How did you get into the job?

In this field, both education and field experience are critical. It is a highly competitive industry, where you are expected to work for very little, or no pay, until you’ve earned your stripes. So during my undergraduate studies, I took six months off to intern with the United Nations following the tsunami and conflict in Aceh, an autonomous province of Indonesia. I then spent the rest of the year interning with the International Crisis Group in Sri Lanka doing conflict analysis and advocacy during the last stages of the civil war. This year helped me clarify how legal training could help me serve people suffering from the effects of war.

Following my LLBhons, I submitted a successful proposal to the International Development Law Organisation to conduct evaluative research on an NGO’s legal empowerment work in post-conflict Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea. Building on this experience, I clerked for the Chief Judge of the Waitangi Tribunal – New Zealand’s transitional justice mechanism – and then began post-graduate studies on access to justice in post-conflict countries. I also spent time in Jordan working with High Royal Highness Prince Hassan bin Talal’s regional think tank, strengthening my understanding of legal issues relating to refugees and other conflict-displaced people.

Finally, on completing my PhD, I applied for a host of jobs. I was very pleased to be offered my present role with the Norwegian Refugee Council, which does internationally-leading legal work and is regarded by many as the best international humanitarian organisation working for conflict-displaced people.


Are there particular study subjects or working experience you would recommend to prepare for a similar role to yours?

As mentioned above, education and field experience are musts for this industry. If you have the chance as an undergrad to do refugee law or international humanitarian law – fantastic (although unfortunately not common in NZ law schools). More importantly, use postgraduate study to do field research and focus on an area relevant to the part of this industry you want to work in. I conducted empirical research on access to justice and rule of law programming in post-conflict societies. But the most critical step is to get as much work experience in conflict-affected and/or Global South countries as you can. In addition, excellent language skills will take you a long way – in particular, French and Arabic – or other local languages if you want to be a regional specialist.


What are the highlights of the job?

Getting to the field. In the most senior position of our large national ICLA programme, a lot of my work is office based – proposal writing, reporting to donors, national advocacy and policy development, budgeting, and strategising. This is all well and good, but it is always a privilege and a pleasure when I get to our field offices and surrounds where I am able, not only to support and encourage my wonderful legal staff, but also to meet the beneficiaries they directly help. It makes the long hours at the office in Kabul worth it!

It is also always a pleasure to be working with the kinds of highly motivated, intelligent and passionate people  from all around the world who seem to end up in these kinds of organisations.


 What are the challenges of the job?

Working in a context like present day Afghanistan does pose some challenges. These include significant security restrictions on our movement. When in Kabul I spend around 90 per cent of my time at the office or the guesthouse.  The remaining 10 per cent is spent in an amoured vehicle during the daily commute, or at external meetings with UN, INGOs or government. We cannot walk the streets, visit cafes, run in the parks, or go for dinner at a national colleague’s house. This makes it hard to meet people outside of work. Part of the context also includes regular (every few days) attacks or explosions in the city. The expectations and workload are also high. I try to take one day off a week, but generally work between 60-80 hour weeks and still feel I’m not quite keeping up. It is also not always easy being so far away from friends and family (including my husband).


What kind of personal qualities are suited to this job?

You need to be highly motivated, determined, hard-working, resilient, adaptable, unconventional, have an excellent sense of humour and be able to get along with all sorts of people from all parts of the world.


What one thing do you wish someone had told you at law school?

That while law on the books is critically important, to know whether people really have ‘access to justice’, you must also look beyond the books.


Any other advice for law students wanting to get into a similar role?

This kind of role will not fall into your lap – especially from New Zealand. You will have to take risks, take the road less travelled, be determined, be prepared to earn little (at least for quite some time), take initiative after initiative, be patient, step well out of your comfort zone frequently, work hard, and be smart. But, you won’t have regrets!