IHRP Alumnus Profile: An Interview with Vincent Wong

Julie Lowenstein (3L)

IHRP Alumnus Vincent WongVincent Wong is an adjunct professor and the William C. Graham Research Associate with the International Human Rights Program. He is spearheading U of T's involvement with the Global Media Freedom Model Laws Project this year. Credit: Julie Lowenstein.

How did you end up in law?

I did an economics and finance undergraduate degree at U of T, so I worked at a number of banks and hedge funds before I went to law school. I found that I didn’t really like the work nor agree with the culture, so I began looking for exit options and that’s how I came to look into law school. I thought law was interesting and I really wanted to get a sense of how power operates in society. I realized that there were a lot of assumptions I had going into my finance degree that I wanted to revisit.

Once you got to law school, what were your main interests?

Essentially, I wanted to learn everything that I didn’t have a chance to learn in business school. I tried just about everything I thought I might be interested in—I did criminal case work at Downtown Legal Services, constitutional work at the David Asper Centre, took the Law and Development and Climate Change Law courses and joined the Indigenous Law Journal and the International Human Rights Program. I guess you could say I became interested in “law and society,” or how law actually operates on the ground.

These interests led me to Avvy Go and the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic. In my 2L year, I organized an event for the Asia Law Society on the Chinese head tax and redress campaign. This panel exposed me to areas such as poverty law and specifically immigration law, and these areas became my continuing interests for the remainder of law school.

Did you have any experiences outside of law school that bolstered your interests?

I did a lot of reading outside of law school. I felt like I knew what I wanted out of my legal education, so I skipped a lot of class reading and read a ton for my own interest. I really liked histories and biographies—I read histories of places like Rwanda, China and Myanmar, and found that a lot of the time fact was way more unbelievable than fiction. This really broadened my mind, and I think that this outside reading was just as important as the formal education I was getting in law school.

Are there any specific courses at U of T that really shaped your interests or that you would recommend?

If you’re interested in social justice and human rights issues, you really have to do clinics or externships, even just for a term. You have to work with people and with communities that are marginalized to be able to work in those spaces effectively. I think once you do that practical work you can get a sense of what you don’t know and ask smart questions and take courses to supplement your knowledge. Some courses I’d recommend are international human rights courses, International Humanitarian Law, Children and the Law, Law and Development—it depends on which communities you’re working with, but clinical work will inform which courses you need to give you the tools and framework to be work effectively in that space.

Can you walk us through your path after law school?

I struggled to get a job both during and after law school. I taught the LSAT after 1L because I didn’t get an internship, and then in 2L the IHRP and Renu Mandhane, who was the director at the time, were nice enough to direct me towards their summer fellowship. I did a summer at the University of Hong Kong researching mass expropriation of land and forced evictions in rural China, and that was an unbelievable experience.

When I got out of law school, despite many applications, I had only one interview. Luckily, it was with the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic and they gave me a shot. At that clinic, clients come to you not only because they are low-income, but also because they can’t speak English, which means they can’t easily access other clinics. Because of this, we took on a broad range of cases—municipal law, social assistance and disability, mental health, employment law, stolen wages reprisal, immigration and citizenship, housing, summary advice in family and criminal law—you really had to find creative ways to help wherever you could.

Working at the clinic was great and I was able to get mentorship from some of the best and most caring practitioners I know. In addition to the case work, I got to go to the UN a couple times for Canada’s review as a civil society delegate. I was also able to participate in constitutional challenges and go to the Supreme Court—it was really an acceleration of what I thought I would be able to do with in law  during an early portion of my career.

I also had a lot of imposter syndrome. I was at important tables where important law and policy reform was happening, and I didn’t always feel fully prepared or that I was the most appropriate person to have been at those tables. I was also burning out and having some mental health issues— I loved the work and the people I worked with but the emotional toll of the work was really getting to me. I decided that I needed to take a break and explore new things, so last year (2018) I went to Columbia Law School to do my LLM, and I was fortunate enough to get a human rights fellowship.

At Columbia, I had the chance to work with Professor Sarah Cleveland, who was the Vice Chair of the Human Rights Committee at that point, some great critical race theorists, like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Kendall Thomas, as well as some great migration scholars, like Seyla Benhabib. My peers were also so amazing and inspirational. I got so much out of my degree at Columbia, and it essentially parlayed into this job with the IHRP.

Can you tell us a bit about the projects you’re working on with the IHRP?

The main project I’m working on is called the Global Media Freedom Model Laws Project. It aims to produce a set of comprehensive thematic reports that contain specific legal guidance for states that may (at least outwardly) want to protect freedom of the press and media freedom but are running into competing interests, with respect to national security, anti-terrorism, espionage, hate speech and disinformation or “fake news.”

We’ve been able to put together a clinic course with 8 students, and we’re going to be leading on the Official Secrets and Espionage Law report, which will look at issues related to people like Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning. We’re looking at the nexus between what a government considers a secret and transparency with respect to things like human rights and issues of significant public interest. If information with respect to surveillance, national defence, and drone killings is not proactively shared or leaked to the press and discussed robustly, then there is no way for the citizenry to hold i government accountable. These are the core questions that are at the heart of the project.

U of T is part of a network of academic institutions around the world that will be looking at different thematic issues with respect to media freedom. We’ll be working with the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institutions, as well as an independent panel of legal experts including Amal Clooney and Irwin Cotler, who was the former Attorney General of Canada. I think we have a great opportunity to make a lasting contribution to this area. The Globe and Mail also wrote an article about the project.

What are some skills that you think are important for a successful career in human rights or research work?

The first is not to overcomplicate. A lot of the time you can find the answer just by googling something, and then if there are complications you can do further research.

The second is networking. A lot of the knowledge that’s necessary to be a good advocate or practitioner is not obvious or written down. But people who have experience can give you the secret sauce. So don’t isolate yourself—ask questions and try to build a network of people you can respect and trust in a given substantive area.  

The third is to be flexible with what you think you can do as a lawyer. IHRP is really great for that. There is a lot you can do that is not just writing factums or doing legal research that is really effective as an advocate. Whether that’s direct action, public legal education, infographics and media, or being involved in the policy and law reform.

If you could give any additional advice to U of T students interested in human rights work, what would it be?

I’d give two pieces of advice. The first is a bit cliché but it’s really important: you need to have a sense of what values you have as a person. You need to explore exactly what you values you won’t compromise on, and try not to stray too far from that. Of course there are sometimes compromises that will need to be made, but if you identify one or two values that you find really important and won’t compromise on, everything will follow from that. 

The second is that there can be a lot of doom and gloom that, if you care about human rights and social justice, you’ll never get a job. While it’s true that it might not pay as much as some other avenues that you could take, if you have a more holistic conception of what human rights are, then I guarantee you there is no shortage of jobs. If you’re a criminal defence lawyer, you’re protecting peoples’ rights to a fair trial. If you’re working with trade unions then you’re defending peoples’ rights to a fair and decent living. There is no shortage of human rights law jobs.