Harvard Law School

Application Essays – LARA BERLIN

The dust swirls around our Land Rover as we roll down the bumpy streets of Kailahun, the town on the eastern border of Sierra Leone where the brutal civil war erupted over sixteen years earlier. Broken down on the side of the road is an old military tanker, a remnant serving as a constant reminder of a conflict fueled by viciousness, helplessness, and fear. Yet today this particular image is not solely one of tragedy, for it had been transformed into a productive element of daily life in the most unexpected of ways—as a clothesline with pants, shirts, and even bras draped over the collapsed military machinery to dry. I laugh at what had become a familiar experience—the nuanced irony of life frequently overlooked by mainstream media.

In fact, it is that nuanced reality—one in which apparent dichotomies may be false shadows hiding a dynamic and fluid world—which I have always called home. I grew up in a very egocentric culture in Southern California while practicing a socio-centric Native American spirituality. My rigorous academic engagement never made me forget the importance of forging powerful emotional connections. As a young white woman I often felt most at home in predominantly black communities. Inspired by my early experiences breaking false barriers, I felt an immutable calling beginning at a very young age to reach out to people around the world who had been oppressed by the imposition of such obstacles. Nothing seemed more important.

I began my quest with a purely humanitarian approach through local community services projects and cultural exchange to Latin America. Over the ensuing years, the more I witnessed as I worked in the slums of Kenya, the post-conflict towns of Sierra Leone, and the ghettos of San Francisco, the more I came to realize that it was not merely through poverty reduction efforts such as building houses that these walls of oppression could be demolished. I attempted to incorporate into my approach the listening skills taught to me by my psychologist parents, the strength and compassion shown to me in my studies of non-violence movements, and the grassroots mobilization demonstrated by various organizations with whom I had worked. The people I met in the communities in which I served awed me with their consistent displays of generosity and receptivity, despite the adversity they faced. However, I was stymied by the complex and deep-rooted socio-political dynamics that rendered the window into resolving those adversities opaque. I found myself repeatedly faced with the question, “What can we do?” While the passion to serve was ever present, discovering the way to systemically transform the military tanker into a clothesline was proving elusive.

Only in exploring this question in environments in which the laws were not clearly defined or obeyed did I realize the importance of the law in providing the necessary transformative paradigm. Law is the backbone of society—that which engraves the protection of human dignity into the rules governing our daily lives. When social change remains at the purely grassroots level (as has been the folly of many attempted movements), that change is subject to the whim of those governing that particular locality. Thus, the change, and the manifestation of the human rights it embodies, can be fleeting. Fundamental to lasting provisions for human dignity and a peaceful global co-existence is the formulation and enforcement of laws that reflect these values.

I recognize the complexity involved in all legal processes, particularly in the realm of conflict resolution in which all too often one must weigh peace against justice in order to achieve one’s ends. Yet it is through the very complexity of debating legal agreements such as these that one can transcend formerly insurmountable and oppressive barriers. Hence, I have come to passionately embrace law as the primary vehicle through which I can promote profound global change. I anticipate the opportunity to study law with the same immutable calling I felt as a child, except this time that calling is grounded in a deeper understanding of the challenges to be faced complemented by my unwavering hope for humanity.

Beginning in medias res, Lara Berlin’s essay takes the reader across three continents in chronicling the author’s steadfast determination to end the “apparent dichotomies . . . hiding a dynamic and fluid world.” The article begins with the image of clothing hanging from a rusting tank and the “nuanced irony” of the intersection of destruction and urban renewal is the primary theme in Berlin’s essay.

Berlin begins by describing the qualifications that she possesses that best prepare her to posit on such a difficult topic. She begins with her experience in breaking down racial barriers as a child in Southern California—feeling more at home in communities of different races and adopting an unusual Native American spiritual focus.

One of Berlin’s main strengths throughout is her ability to focus the essay around one theme and appropriately tie back each essay to the overarching idea. In this case, it is “an immutable calling . . . to reach out to people around the world who had been oppressed” by the institution of socio-economic and racial barriers. Berlin flawlessly segues from her childhood to her adult life—working from Latin America to Africa in a series of poverty reduction efforts intended to effect change from the ground level.
However, Berlin finds an unresolvable conflict: She cannot resolve the generous goals of the organizations she works for with the inefficacy of her work. Feeling a compelling need to help out the people she helped, Berlin turns to the law. Here, she does a good job pivoting back to how this essay relates to HLS. Calling law “the backbone of society,” Berlin nicely illustrates both a theory of social change and a compelling reason for the altruistic pursuits she will use her law degree for.

However, while the ideas of the essay flow well, the mechanics are relatively lacking. Berlin often uses inappropriate word choice to characterize her experiences. Confusing verbiage—like the Southern California “egocentric culture” never fully explained or peculiar phrasing of “immutable calling”—prevents the writer from conveying her ideas most effectively.

In sum, Berlin demonstrates a very effective and practical theory of change throughout the essay, using a solid organizational structure and clear ideas to illustrate the process by which she came to pursue law and how she will use her law degree. More than anything, Berlin displays a knowledge of where she came from and where she is going.

– David Freed

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