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Providing In-House Legal Relief for the IRC
Carrie Simon was an attorney in private practice in Washington, D.C., for 19 yearsfirst at Dow, Lohnes & Albertson, then at Rogers & Wells, and later at Clifford Chance Rogers & Wells following a 2000 merger. During her law firm years she specialized in international regulatory matters and represented multinational, foreign, and U.S. organizations before the U.S. Departments of Justice, State, Commerce, and Treasury.
But Simon, who grew up in a small town in California and received her J.D. from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, decided in 2001 that she wanted to move to New York City and do something different. While trying to figure out what that might be, she learned that the International Rescue Committee was looking for a lawyer to take on some pro bono work. Simon volunteered at the international relief organization, which was founded in 1933 at the urging of Albert Einsteinand she's been there ever since.
Not long after she began working there pro bono, the IRC realized that it needed a full-time in-house counsel. Simon was offered the job; she has now been the IRC's general counsel for 11 years.
Corporate Counsel: What attracted you to the IRC?
Carrie Simon: I was drawn to the IRC because I believe that refugees are among the most important people in the world, and h How the world treats refugees and the displacedgenerally stateless people fleeing conflictis a core humanitarian issue. My grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Poland and Lithuania under difficult circumstances. When I was young, I often imagined what it was like for my grandmother to leave her home and family, travel by ship, and come here alone at age 14 with nothing. I was attracted to the IRC 's work and its history partly because of that family history.
CC: It must have been quite a transition, moving from private practice to an international nonprofit organization.
CS: Surprisingly, a fair amount of my experience was transferable to the work I do now. I had done a lot of international transactional compliance work, focusing on such issues as antibribery, anticorruption, and international sanctions. And I still deal with those issues today. The biggest leap was going from being a private practitioner to an in-house lawyer, and working for an NGO (nongovernmental agency) instead of a for-profit corporation. The GC office at an NGO is much smaller than at a private corporation. I work with two other lawyers, a compliance officer, and sometimes with legal interns.
CC: Have you traveled to some of the places where IRC works?
CS: Yes. I traveled a lot when I was in private practice as well, but to quite different places. Since joining the IRC I've been to countries in Africa, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda, and also to Thailand, and to refugee camps.
CC: Even though some of the legal issues you deal with are the same as when you were in private practice, is there something that makes this job different?
CS: My perspective is different here. The role of the GC's office is to enable my colleagues to do the real work of the organization. Sometimes they're in dangerous locations on the front lines of a crisis. We're there to support them and ensure they can do their work without interference or interruption.
CC: What are your biggest challenges?
CS: I have to anticipate emergencies and react to them. The work we do can be affected by world events and unexpected issues. But at the same time, I like to be proactiveprovide training programs to our employees so they know what to do if presented with a range of problems and issues. We work in 40 countries and in 22 U.S. cities. On any given day I may be looking at employment-related issues, governance issues, donor compliance, and regulatory compliance issues. The largest part of our work is providing humanitarian assistance and emergency response; the oldest part of our mission is facilitating refugee resettlement. We embody the organization's tagline, "From Harm to Home."
CC: What would you tell people considering a move from private practice to in-house work at a nonprofit or NGO?
CS: People think that because I work at an NGO, my workload is lighter than it was when I worked at a law firm. They also think the hours are more "normal." But I find that the work I do now is more intense. The stakes are higher.
CC: What keeps you awake at night?
CS: The safety and security of our staff. We have a strong network of security advisers in the field, and I've tried to implement security protocols. In a sense I'm in charge of the risk management function of the organization. The stakes are high.
CC: No regrets for making the move to an NGO a decade ago?
CS: None. I feel very privileged to be doing this kind of work. I fully expect that this is the best job I'll ever have.