Why wait when I can use my law knowledge to help people now?
by Elizabeth Willoughby

Sick with dengue fever in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia while under pressure to complete her university assignment, a light went on in the mind of LMU law student Franziska Faßbinder. That is the moment she decided to do something meaningful with her academic knowledge – to somehow apply it to volunteer work.

Besides the timing, her decision had nothing to do with the illness. Her determination to apply her law knowledge to volunteerism was influenced by foreign experience, which by that time she'd had plenty of. When in high school in 2005, Franziska lived for six months in Lyon, France in order to learn the language. It happened to be the same time that there was rioting in the French suburbs, the notorious low-income housing projects to where mainly immigrants are relegated. This provoked her to write a paper about migration, and was her first contact with refugee organizations.

Seeing the other side

Franziska also lived in Russia for a year, which is where she gained a more profound insight into the immigrant experience. Before working for a German law firm in Moscow for three months, she went to Saint Petersburg State University, with no local language, no friends and, during the parliamentary elections in autumn 2011, even her personal blog was censored. "For the first time in my life," she says, "I felt completely lost."

A quick study, she was able to converse in Russian within three months, and had made some friends as well. "Russians are honest," she says. "While Starbucks is selling the smallest coffee as 'tall', the cheapest theatre ticket in Russia is sold as 'price category: uncomfortable'. It is hard to become friends with Russians, but once you do, they can't do enough for you."

Six months after her return to Munich, Franziska began the half-year law program that was divided between Italy and Malaysia. Of its courses, The Refugee in International Law made the biggest impact. "It raised the awareness for me that the right for asylum is a human right," she says, "and made me ask myself how I can support it. I could sit every day in the library studying jurisprudence, but couldn't I also be using my knowledge about law to help people now? To learn what kind of problems people are struggling with and gain some practical experience?"

The idea grows legs

In 2013, Franziska invited some law students around for dinner and pitched her idea about creating a legal clinic for refugees in Munich that would be serviced by volunteers. Her friends agreed that it was a good idea, but none felt they had time for it without negatively impacting their studies. Amnesty International's Munich Universities Group, which promotes human rights through university activities, supported the idea however, and by November the Refugee Law Clinic Munich (RLCM) was founded by Franziska and seven of her LMU law school friends.

Supported also with financial aid from sponsors, by their new patron Dr. Heribert Prantl from the Editorial Board of German's largest national daily – Süddeutsche Zeitung, and by 13 asylum lawyers who assist with workshops and instruction, RLCM provides free advice to asylum-seekers on anything from cell phone contracts to immigration law. In return for their time commitment, RLCM gives LMU law students practical experience that they won't encounter in Germany's law studies curriculum. After only 12 months, RLCM is now 150 members strong and growing, with over 40 refugee cases under its belt and several social entrepreneurship awards.

"When I started my studies, I was not planning to become a lawyer. I wanted to be a journalist," says Franziska. "But during an internship at a Munich editorial office, my boss told me that if I wanted to be a good journalist, I should study law. That way one also gets a close look at history, politics and the values of our society."

Unsure in which field of law she will eventually practice, for now Franziska's time is spent at RLCM and preparing for her bar exam next year.

Originally published at insightLMU, December 2014

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