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Literature, law, and the importance of not knowing


Keya Advani '08
Keya Advani '08

What do you want to be when you grow up? I certainly had no idea when I landed at JFK Airport on August 18, 2004. The date is stamped into my passport and etched into my memory — the first time I left India alone, the first time I set foot in the United States of America. A family friend, I had never met previously, picked me up at JFK and, a few days later, drove me up College Hill Road. Over the next four years, Hamilton literally became my home, and my family became the motley crew of “international students” who hung out by the front window in Commons and invaded each other’s communal kitchens to catch a break from dining hall food. 

I majored in comparative literature (now the Department of Literature and Creative Writing), which was predicated on the notion that to truly engage with a piece of writing or an idea, you must engage with it from multiple perspectives, across socio-political contexts, and preferably in different languages. The requirement to cross boundaries lay at the heart of my liberal arts education — across disciplines, concepts, geographies, and cultures. This idea of crossing borders to engage meaningfully with the world also led me to spend a semester in Spain and went on to fundamentally inform my life choices as I found myself moving from the U.S. to Jamaica, then India, and now the U.K.  

In the summer of my sophomore year, I got an internship with a newly established non-profit organization in New York City, The Global Justice Centre (GJC), which worked to enforce human rights laws to advance gender equality. During the time I worked there, the organization was training judges of the Iraq High Tribunal to use international laws to sentence crimes under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Its work went on to help set a precedent by classifying rape as a war crime in sentencing. Working at the GJC was my first practical introduction to the law as a tool for social justice and turned out to be one of the most formative experiences of my career. Looking back, I can’t overstate how important internships have been for defining my career path. 

Now trust me, I know doing unpaid internships is expensive. I was lucky enough to get summer internship funding from Hamilton, which covered my basic living expenses in New York. To earn a little extra cash, I couch-surfed, dog-sat, cat-sat and babysat my way through my time in the city. I’m not saying it’s easy. But there are sometimes creative ways to get around the challenges and maybe ways that you can get Hamilton to support you, too.

When I graduated, I went back to work with the GJC for another five months before moving to Jamaica to (spend time with a particular international student I had met at Hamilton – who is now my husband!) and intern with Women’s Media Watch, a women-led organization advocating for gender-aware media practices. I then returned home to India, where I worked for a year with the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), India’s leading public interest law group. I earned 10,000 rupees a month (approx. 150 U.S. dollars) and loved every minute of the job. This may be obvious, but the job that pays the most isn’t necessarily the best job for you. If you have the luxury of choice in your early career, go for the job that excites and inspires you, not the one that pays the most. 

My experiences working with HRLN and the GJC convinced me that lawyers were at the cutting edge of social justice work and if I wanted to make a real difference, I needed to be a lawyer.

I moved to the U.K. in 2010 to begin my law degree at Cambridge University. But when I graduated, financial practicalities, and the need to find an employer that would “sponsor” the visa I needed to work in the U.K. derailed my grand plans of becoming a human rights lawyer. Instead, I was recruited by a large global commercial law firm in London where I completed my legal training and worked on some of the biggest corporate insolvencies of the decade, including some that came out of the financial crash of 2008 — the year I had graduated from Hamilton. While this may be a dream goal for many, to me it felt like a betrayal of the whole reason I wanted to become a lawyer. I didn’t want to be a lawyer for big corporations — I wanted to use the law as a means to stand up to them! But in many ways my experience was irreplaceable and taught me a huge amount about how the world of law works in the U.K. and internationally. It also taught me that career paths are not linear. They are full of unexpected twists and bumps, frustrations and compromises. There may be times you will need to choose the job that pays off debts, supports your family, or gets you the visa you need. And that’s ok.

I have now happily moved on to working as a “social impact” lawyer with the London-based law firm, Bates Wells, the U.K.’s top firm for charities and non-profits. My clients are diverse - ranging from NGOs, charities and social enterprises to for-profit organisations, B Corps and purposeful businesses, from startups to global household names. I provide pro bono support to people and organizations trying to tackle social and systemic issues in innovative ways. And I am a trustee of a non-profit organization, The Centre for Innovation in Voluntary Action, which incubates and funds creative solutions to social and environmental problems. Through my work — paid, pro bono and voluntary — I am constantly trying to find ways to marry my legal skills with my commitment to human rights and social change. 

I can’t end this piece without saying something about careers and parenthood — even though parenthood may seem like a long way off (or may not be a part of your future plans). My career will always be a big part of who I am. But parenthood has reminded me that I am not — and never was — just one thing. I have chosen to take a pay cut to work a four-day week, which is unusual for a lawyer. But I am not just a lawyer. I’m also a parent and a partner, a friend and a writer, a reader and a social activist, a mentor, and a person who is constantly trying to figure out what else I can be. 

What do you want to be when you grow up? Obviously that question is flawed. It is premised on the notion that you want to be just one thing — and of course none of us are just one thing. So no, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I hope you don’t either. I hope you have as much fun as I am figuring it out.

Contact Information


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