Nicholas Caivano is an international human rights lawyer and policy analyst with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, working to advance the health and human rights of marginalized, high-risk groups. He monitors human rights violations in Canada and advocates for a rights-respecting Canadian foreign policy. He articled at Amnesty International Canada and has worked for the United Nations in Geneva and Human Rights Watch in New York.
Let’s start with the basics. Did you always imagine yourself going to law school?
I did, since fairly early on, probably starting right after high school. I started thinking about it seriously during my undergrad (in finance – which seems to surprise people). I was doing research for a small NGO on international financial institutions and the impact on odious debt on international development, and that started it. I didn't think I could make a career out of it it then, but figured law school would provide some backup options if NGO work didn't pan out.
What did the journey from big law to your lawfully uncommon career look like?
I don’t see my career as all that uncommon. I think lots of people get into human rights work but not as many get to do it out of the gate.
My volunteer work with NGOs helped me land an internship at Human Rights Watch after 1L and to work with some of amazing people – and that remains one of the most transformational experiences of my life. I discovered the whole realm of international human rights law at HRW, and even though I wanted to pursue that, I wasn’t sure the market would absorb me right away. I did OCIs and summered at one of the big corporate law firms, but decided to turn down articles at the firm to look for something in the human rights space, which was always the game plan.
I was offered a position at Amnesty International beginning a year after graduation, so I had some time “off” between law school and articles. I used that time to prepare for Amnesty by writing a few academic articles and doing both volunteer and consulting work for OHCHR, a legal clinic, an NGO, and a few professors.
In retrospect, turning down an articling position at the firm was a risk but I’m glad I went for it.
What got your juices flowing or tickled your fancy while at law school?
Research work with some great professors; meeting inspirational people in the legal and NGO space; kicking it in Montreal. Anything outside the classroom really.
What made your blood boil or made you snooze while at law school?
The legal job market tends to perpetuate a narrow definition of success that can spread to law students, so that made me snooze. There isn’t a big focus placed on encouraging law students to spend time thinking about what they actually want to do on a day-to-day basis, and the result is that a lot of people go into law and find themselves doing stuff they don’t really want to do. But with a legal career there’s a lot of opportunity to find work that you would engage in willingly because it’s meaningful and energizing.
Do you still see law all around you?
I do, although law is only one tool to improve human rights outcomes. A legal victory can be one part of the picture, but there may be more strategic ways to get the results you want.
You are at a coffee house speaking to a first-year law student. What advice would you give them?
Question the status quo. You don’t have to do what everybody else is doing. You need to create a life for yourself on your own terms.
This is not the moment to be risk averse. Many law students are in their twenties and free from the major obligations they'll have later on in life. Now is the time to go for it.
What does a day in your life look like? Give us the rundown!
I’m what you might call a "human rights generalist" at the Legal Network, an organization with a really broad mandate across a range of issues – so there really is no average day, and I might be working on anything from drug policy, to the rights of sex workers, to how international trade deals impact public health.
I’ll usually start by doing the most intense research and drafting for submissions to the government or international bodies in the morning—right now I’m participating in Canada’s consultation on the renegotiation of NAFTA. I’m also preparing an oral statement to deliver at the United Nations in Geneva in a few weeks to advocate for the decriminalization of all drugs for personal use as part of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s review of Canada. I’m in constant correspondence with other NGOs and human rights lawyers in Canada, and might jump on one or more calls to touch base on whatever we’re working on.
If you were given the blessing and curse of an extra hour every day to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?
I think I’d try to go on the offence—to focus and zero in on something I’ve been putting off. Or maybe I’d do nothing. It's a good idea to cultivate slack and empty space in your schedule—because no one will give it to you.
Any regrets? (Yeah, we are retrospective like that).
I regret putting my laptop in the trunk of my friend’s car a week before finals in my last semester of law school while we dove into a bar for a post-library nightcap. You can guess what happened next. Still stings.