Alumni Short

Montse Ferrer '09

Seeing Both Sides

Montse Ferrer '09 has a resume that travels from her home in Spain to jobs in Guatemala, Bolivia, Colombia, Cape Town, and Puerto Rico. She also taught International Human Rights in the Auburn Correctional Facility. On the way, she earned a degree from Columbia University in political science and comparative literature.

"Yesterday, a student at the prison asked why I want to be a lawyer. Human rights work is abstract and ineffective," he said, "and lawyers don't do anything." In answering his question, said Ferrer, she answered her own. "Everybody comes to law school to change the world. It's so easy to say that and not do it." Law, however, teaches you how to engage both sides of an issue. "You can't find a solution if you don't acknowledge and engage the other side's story," she notes. "I don't believe in tolerance; I believe in engagement. It's easy to say, but so much harder to do."

Ferrer grew up in Barcelona, Spain, where her father is a business consultant and her mother an art historian. Her brother is a banker in New York City; her sister and brother-in-law live in the nation of Georgia. "My parents were very generous in letting us all leave," she says. "They grew up under the dictatorship in Spain, and find American ideals very appealing."

With a law career "in the back of my mind," Ferrer decided to go to school in the United States, one of the few countries where law is a graduate degree. With a J.D., she explains, "you can really affect society and move it forward."

At Columbia University, says Ferrer, "two things changed my life." First, she volunteered in a nursing home, with the homeless, and with children. Her volunteer experiences made plain the "vast difference between the rich and the poor," and got her thinking about justice. She also realized that "law, while empowering some individuals, disempowers many others."

Then Ferrer traveled to Guatemala as a delegate of the Organization of American States (OAS). "It was the beginning of my experiences outside of Western Europe and the United States," reported Ferrer. "I realized that my education, although really good, had also subtly made me think of the West as superior to the rest. I really needed to get rid of that. I think I'm still learning."

Her need to keep learning led her to live with an indigenous community when, in the summer of 2005, she worked for the Bolivian government's Ministry of Public Participation. The following summer, Ferrer worked for the OAS in Colombia, on the Mission to Support the Peace Process. She was an observer for the demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of the paramilitaries who were receiving amnesty after years of fighting. "Most of the paramilitaries were seventeen or eighteen years old," she recalls, noting that they had little education. "You can move masses toward doing certain things if they don't have education. Education is power, and lack thereof as well," she notes.

In the summer of 2007, she clerked for Hon. Juan R. Torruella of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Puerto Rico. There, she says, "I learned I have a passion for law."

Summarizing opposing briefs, she discovered that the best ones present convincing arguments as well as address those of the opposing side. Applying this to her experiences, she says, "Every time there's a conflict, there are many different stories, but we only stick to one story, the one that best fits our own interests because it's easier that way."

After interning at Clifford Chance in New York City and Moscow, Ferrer studied at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, in the fall of 2008 and later worked for the Genocide Fugitive Tracking Unit in Rwanda. It was another defining experience.

Ferrer worked at a refugee center, a prison, and interviewed witnesses from the Rwanda conflict. "For months I was very affected by my work in prison and outside of it, especially with regard to genocide," she recalls. "I cried almost every day." But she also realized that only education and self-awareness kept her from being a genocidaire. "We can all be potential genocidaires," she says, adding: "Never call it evil. Once we ascribe evilness to an act or an individual, we no longer have power over it."

During her semesters at the Law School, Ferrer involved herself in moot court competitions and served as an editor for the Cornell International Law Journal. "Because Cornell is small, it lets you take advantage of law clinics and doing research for professors in a way that's unavailable in other law schools," she notes.

Drawing from her experiences in Africa as well as in the Asylum and Prosecution Trial Clinics at the Law School, she says: "More than anything, I'm taking away from law school the application of punishment in two different contexts: transitional societies and criminal justice systems. Transitional justice happens after large-scale human rights violations are committed, as a society transitions into, say, democracy. It's not only about justice; it's about truth, bringing out the stories. We want truth, justice, and peace, but we need to balance them. If amnesty is conditional on public confession, you pay a price to get truth. You can't put twenty-five percent of the population in jail! There are many ways of balancing. In South Africa, it was more about truth, in Colombia about peace, and in Rwanda about justice."

Ferrer explains that, in the context of national criminal justice systems, "the causes of crime need to fit the type of punishment inflicted. As of now, they do not. Crime is not always about choice. Many times it's about constrained choice. Eighty percent of the men I worked with in Pollsmoor Prison had never had a father figure. Many of them grew up in gangs; others did not even have middle school education. You find the same demographics in U.S. prisons. Is the solution minimum sentencing or imprisonment with no access to education or rehabilitation?"

Ferrer's next step is clerking for Hon. Vanessa Ruiz, associate judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals; then she will join Clifford Chance. "Law firms train you and give you resources," she explains. Although she eventually wants to return to public sector law, she says, "the public sector needs to know the private sector."