Alumnus of the year 2007

Yasmin Waljee

Yasmin Waljee was awarded for her inspiring pro bono human rights work at Lovells LLP. Yasmin heads Lovells' pro bono initiative, which offers commercial legal expertise to charities, individuals and not-for-profit social enterprises tackling disadvantage.

Among a long a list of events and fundraising operations organised by Yasmin is 2007's Legally Ballroom Dancing, where 30 lawyers danced in front of their colleagues to help raise £25,000 for Save the Children. The second Legally Ballroom took place in May 2009.

Oration

Oration given on 20 July 2007 by Professor Kevin Boyle, Department of Law

Chancellor, the University of Essex Foundation has determined that Yasmin Waljee shall be the recipient of the Alumnus of the Year Award for 2007.

Chancellor, I fear that you and the audience may have heard enough from me but I have the good fortune that the Alumnus of the Year is a graduate of the Human Rights Centre. 

Yasmin Waljee graduated from Essex in 2003 with an MA in the Theory and Practice of Human Rights being awarded a pass with distinction. Yasmin chose to study for this postgraduate degree at the Centre over several years because she was also working as a solicitor for a large, London-based law firm – Lovells. So far so normal. Many, if not most of our law graduates aspire to make their fame and fortune working with large city firms but Yasmin’s career was to be different. Having joined Lovells, she was approached in 1997 with a three-line job description of a new post the firm wanted to establish. That of pro bono officer. Pro bono work means providing free legal advice and representation in courts to those who cannot pay or cannot obtain state legal aid. And it’s a tradition in the legal profession to take up some work without charge. But Lovells proposal was much more radical. It wanted to make pro bono work a major part of the firm’s activity, ultimately involving all its staff. Yasmin, who had a career of Human Rights activism from her undergraduate days at Durham, seized the opportunity with characteristic enthusiasm. Even while studying the theory at Essex, she was busy building what has become an extraordinary national and international pro bono programme providing free, fifteen thousand hours of legal advice to over two hundred charities and individuals a year. How does she do it? How do you mobilise lawyers who are always under pressure to remember the bottom line? Her answer – keep smiling, keep networking, find the lawyer for the job, carry them along on a wave of enthusiasm and conviction that everybody has a right to access justice. Yasmin has been long personally involved in working for prisoners on death row in the Caribbean and on behalf of British nationals detained aboard, often facing the death penalty.

At home, here in Britain, she set up the Asian Lawyers Society helpline through which specialist lawyers and interpreters on call give free advice to ethnic minorities. Yasmin has also developed programmes within her firm to seek injunctions for victims of domestic violence, working with the national centre for domestic violence. And in addition, a programme to provide advocates for those facing eviction. And she has been active as a lawyer in helping victims of terrorism including those of the seven July bombings in London to obtain compensation. She is also deeply involved on issues of the human rights responsibilities of companies and businesses and is a Director of the Corporate Social Responsibility Group. Yasmin knows that progress in advancing human rights protection in our complex world is measured not in kilometres, or even metres but millimetres! But with her boundless enthusiasm and conviction, she has made a difference in the lives of many vulnerable and powerless individuals both in Britain and aboard.

Amazingly, Yasmin finds time for other interests and passions. She is a keen footballer and a Manchester United supporter, as well as being a poet. And she and her husband, Gregor, have now another precious preoccupation, their first child Angus Koreen (both are here somewhere – I think).

In 2000, Yasmin was named by The Times as Woman Solicitor of the Year and in 2005 she was shortlisted for the Asian Woman of Achievement Awards. Now it is our turn to recognize her achievement as our Alumnus of the Year 2007.

Chancellor, I present Yasmin Waljee.

Response

Response by Yasmin Waljee

Thank-you Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor and Professor Boyle. I feel terribly privileged to receive this award especially as it's for work I thoroughly enjoy. Ten years ago, Lovells set up a pro bono unit and they asked me to co-ordinate the provision of free legal advice, and so began a long journey to persuade the city to get involved in human rights. Back then, the city was an even more unforgiving place than it is today. I was almost thrown out of an interview for having amnesty membership on my CV. Nowadays, it's almost fashionable in the city to be associated with amnesty or a human rights cause.

My time studying at Essex was to change how I approach human rights in business. It gave me the grounding to reflect on how human rights could be integrated into the work of an international law firm in the city, the confidence to take on the corporate agenda and make sure I got human rights on the table. The pro bono work done over the last ten years by me and by my colleagues using their professional, unpaid skills for people who desperately need legal help but cannot afford that legal help is often best known through the high profile work, but for me it's not the big ticket items that matter. It's important to understand human rights at a very local level. How individually each one of us has the potential to change things. Otherwise you can very quickly lose perspective and end up substituting glamour for principle or feeling that we can't change anything individually, which simply isn't true. As Kevin mentioned, we have been representing dozens of London bombing victims. But the reason we have had the expertise to do this is that we spent years championing the rights of victims, working with Britain's criminal injuries compensation system. I can always find lawyers to challenge some important legal principle in the Privy Council or the US Supreme Court or at the International Tribunals but it's much harder to find volunteers to go to the local County Court, to represent a single mother from being evicted, or promoting minority Muslim rights. For me, the most rewarding aspects of what I do is taking lawyers, young and old, who haven't given human rights a second thought and then suddenly turning them into white collar activists, where there have been clear injustices and where they can get immense personal reward from helping an individual. The everyday cases are the ones that I think give us credibility. Not just to allow me to stand up and speak today, but also within my own organisation and within the city.

The sense of common purpose we have created through helping individuals and small organisations has given us the credibility in our own organisations to raise the issue of human rights in business. What about corporate responsibility? What role does business have in society? And it does have one. We should not have been able to do this without a constituency calling for it. The PLCs and the retail firms have customers, public opinion like us to influence their behaviour. But for privately owned firms, the private equities of the world, and the partnerships, that pressure principally comes from its employees. The lasting changes that pro bono will make within the city will be through immobilizing employees to press for change.I would like to leave you with two messages. 

First, wherever you end up and whatever you end up doing, don't lose sight of the problems and the injustices that there are in our local environment and your ability to help alleviate them because each one of us has the potential to do that. They matter every bit as much as the very difficult, complex issues we have to deal with. Secondly, congratulations on graduating to everyone here. I sat where you are, four years ago, and I can't stress enough how valuable the teaching at Essex is. 

I wish you the very best of luck, but I know you won't need it.

Thank you.