This next instalment of my interview series highlighting lawyers who are doing interesting things is with Marianne Elliott, a former corporate attorney from New Zealand who spent a decade working in human rights before transitioning into a new series of careers in writing and yoga. This interview derived from a recommendation from the talented Roxanne Krystalli, who blogs over at Stories of Conflict and Love. I’ve really enjoyed the personalized emails and tweets suggesting people for this series. If anyone has a candidate, please don’t hesitate to let me know.
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What made you decide to follow a less conventional path than typical law school graduates? Was there a particular moment that catalyzed the decision for you?
I studied law because I was passionate about advocacy and justice, and because I wanted to work in international human rights. I suppose I always planned to follow a path that was a little different from a ‘typical’ legal career. Although my first job was in corporate litigation, that was only ever a short-term option to recover from the cost of my studies and learn the craft. After a few years I left to take up my first human rights position, in the Gaza Strip.
In the past four years my path has changed again. After a decade working for national and international human rights organisations, I’m now a free-lance writer (ed: Marianne writes for HuffPo and her first book has just been published – see the bio below for links!) and yoga teacher. I also lead Off the Mat, Into the World in NZ and Australia, using the power of yoga to inspire conscious, sustainable activism and to ignite grass roots social change.
I’m not entirely sure I consciously chose this new path, or that I really knew what I was getting into, but there was a moment in Afghanistan when I decided that I would like to work for myself. I wanted to find new ways to bring together my passion for social justice and human rights with my love of yoga and writing. So I guess I’ve managed that.
Girl in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Afghanistan
What do you find most fulfilling about your current job?
Well, I don’t really have a ‘job’ per se. What I find most fulfilling about my life at the moment is the fact that I can spend an entire day writing and call it work! That and getting emails from people every day telling me how my writing and my yoga courses have helped them make some pretty incredible changes in their lives. It’s also not bad determining my own hours, choosing only to work with people who I really like and being able to work from a cottage in a seaside village in New Zealand.
Do you have any advice for professionals who are interested in leaving private practice but concerned about what is out there?
Get clear about what difference you want to make in the world (e.g. my boyfriend believes that the answer to many of the world’s greatest challenges lie in the way we eat, so he wants to make a difference to how people think about food and what they eat), and
Put your energy into what you absolutely love doing (hint, it’s that thing you would happily do all day even if you were never paid for it, the activity you get lost in and suddenly discover hours have passed without you even noticing).
It might not sound much like career advice, but in my experience we have the capacity to be truly brilliant when we are clear about the ‘why’ (the difference we want to make) and when we are pouring energy into our existing passions and natural talents. And true brilliance will find it’s way.
I should note that I live a fairly modest, simple life and that simplifying your life and minimizing your expenses is also a pathway to career freedom. The less you need to earn, the more choices you have.
Marianne Elliott, Walking in hills above Chegcharan, Afghanistan
How did your legal education inform the way you see the world today? Do you still identify yourself as a lawyer?
My legal education, and my early years working in corporate litigation, gave me an almost insatiable appetite for research, a powerful commitment to transparency and accountability, a love for a good debate, and the ability to work for 12 hours straight (not always a good thing, but sometimes handy). I still love building a case for something I believe in, and I still believe justice is worth working all night for.
I identify as an advocate rather than a lawyer.
What do you have to say to those who tell me lawyers can’t have fun?
I say, they need to meet Myron Reducto.
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Marianne trained as a lawyer in New Zealand, lasted a few years in corporate litigation and then spent a decade working as a human rights lawyer. She served with the United Nations in Afghanistan, developed human rights strategies for the governments of New Zealand and Timor-Leste and worked as a policy advisor for Oxfam.Marianne is the author of Zen Under Fire, and a Huffington Post contributor. She’s also a yoga teacher.