Diversity at the Bar: Monica Feria-Tinta

Monica Feria-Tinta, of 20 Essex Street Chambers, is a world-renowned international human rights lawyer, as well as the first and only Latin American lawyer practicing at the Bar of England and Wales. With an incredible career to date, including a groundbreaking case against a former Head of State and the first international human rights case in the world on the protection of the rights of the child in times of war, Monica has consistently displayed exemplary determination and exceptional skill. Here, she talks to Chambers Diversity about her training, her experiences at the Bar, and the self-belief that has driven her forward.

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With an assured air, a stylish pale pastel green outfit that compliments her dark skin and immaculate hair, Monica Feria-Tinta easily fits the mould of a powerhouse of international law. And yet, despite her vast experience in the toughest human rights cases, in her eyes you can just as clearly see the determined young girl from Peru, growing up under a dictatorship, who decided at the age of 12 to become a lawyer: “I could sense that people were unhappy, they weren’t free. There was another way, a democratic way, and to work towards that it made sense to become a lawyer.” With a deep respect and appreciation for the rule of law, a practice distinctly lacking in 1970’s Peru, Monica devoted herself to her studies, instilling the work ethic that has taken her so far.

As we move on to her legal training, Monica’s ability to overcome obstacles of race and gender in the profession becomes all the more obvious: Peru is very racialized, indigenous populations are marginalised. I come from that heritage so it was potentially an obstacle, especially as nobody in my family was a lawyer. My strength was my academic achievement. I felt I was entitled to do what I wanted to do because I was doing well…But I didn’t really stay in Peru long enough to test those waters.” Despite the obstacles, Monica is always able to find a way to take back power, to achieve what she set out to. Her faith in what she was working towards, the full implementation of international human rights law, meant that the hard work required to succeed came naturally.

After obtaining her first law degree, Monica came to the UK to study International Law at the London School of Economics. While she sings the praises of her mentor, current judge of the International Court of Justice Sir Christopher Greenwood, it was her strength of will that propelled her onwards:  “I remember very well – at the time there were not many women doing international law, but I never felt because I was a woman I couldn’t do it. Professor Rosalyn Higgins, the only woman sitting before the ICJ, had just left to take up a position in The Hague. It seemed normal. I was not aware of how difficult it might be. I just saw that it was happening, it was possible.”

It is in the space between possibility and reality that Monica thrives: “Everything starts with projecting yourself and having a dream, as early as possible! We need to help nurture these dreams from an early age. Hard work and focus can push potential boundaries aside. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to prove that you deserve it. Put the work in, do your research, believe in yourself, and you will succeed.” Monica is no stranger to putting in long hours and taking on the most traumatic cases that, to a mere mortal, would be just too emotionally draining. Her obvious passion for doing what is difficult, for doing what needs to be done, has seen to it that perpetrators of human rights violations are always brought to justice, regardless of the difficulties involved.

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We discuss the UK Bar and the new experience of being self-employed, as well as the clerk system. Having been called in 2014, she is still a relative newcomer, but as the first ever Latin-American lawyer to be called, and currently in practice, Monica is able to offer a rare insight. “The English Bar has a long, albeit unpublicised, tradition of welcoming émigrés jurists, Alberico Gentili and Hersch Lauterpacht, to name but a few. Lauterpacht, who coined the term ‘crimes against humanity’, left Austria in the 1920’s and arrived in London entering the London School of Economics as a research student. Despite arriving with limited English, he soon improved and was called to the Bar in 1935, where he practiced as a door tenant from 20 Essex Street (then 3 Essex Court, Temple), and later became Whewell Professor of International Law at Cambridge. The influence of his work was directly reflected in the European Convention on Human Rights and he grew to be one of the most influential international lawyers of the twentieth century.”   

Talking about her personal experience she points out: “In the past there was this feeling that women may be more fitted for certain areas of law, but that was never my experience. Coming to chambers I had already been a fully-fledged international lawyer. At 20 Essex Street, we have a system to ensure there are equal opportunities for all barristers.” Rather than focusing on the potential for discrimination that comes with being a female barrister, Monica uses her life experience and individuality to her advantage. “When I work, I know gender is important. In the Castro-Castro prison case, I would not have been able to find the angle to argue the case if I had not looked at it as a woman. So is it a handicap to be a woman? It is an advantage, because I was able to see how my clients were affected, and I used that, and I couldn’t believe that this convention was always looked at neutrally.”

Indeed, in her case against Alberto Fujimori, formerly the Peruvian Head of State, Monica’s advocacy on the very specific nature of the trauma caused by the torture of women led to the feminisation of human rights law in the Americas, for which she won the 2007 Gruber Justice Prize. “It was important to tell the judges that dignity is a notion that is not gender neutral, that a woman’s notion of dignity is distinct. When you suffer pain or torture, gender is an important factor in how harm could be inflicted. It’s different when they (the assailants) use your specificities to harm you. Wherever you are, whatever you are, there is an additional eye you have, and when you’re working on a case you’re going to be able bring that with you and use it. That’s why diversity is important.”

That is not to say that gender makes a difference in all, or even most, of her cases. “My very first case at the Bar, my gender had nothing to do with it. It was a massive case and my supervisor trusted me completely.“  It is not hard to do so. When Monica talks about her work there is an overarching sense of passion and capability. “This trust is empowering, it makes you feel more capable. When I work, I am a good brain, that’s it. So when you work with other colleagues who are also giving the best they can, this is what comes out, this desire to give it your all. That is what is expected of you. You have to act in the best interests of your client.”  A consummate professional, Monica’s success at the Bar is hardly surprising when you consider her career to date. What she does prove, however, is that whatever route you choose, it can lead to equally exceptional endeavours.

Her easy smile spreads wider as she talks about karate and the feeling of strength that it has engendered within. A black belt (1st dan) in Shotokan karate, she speaks fondly of her traditional Japanese dojo. It is here that she creates the space and the energy to discipline the mind, to acquire mental stamina, to be entirely present in each moment, and always be open to learning. “A black belt is ultimately a white belt that did not give up”. She is always ready with the will to act or react first, to take the initiative.

“People bring with them a unique path and perspective, which will be part of how you look at problems. This enriches the profession. Your gender isn’t going to automatically make you a fairer judge, for example, but it is important that there is a representation of all sectors of society in the legal profession.” Monica still approaches her work like a student of the profession. She is aware of any potential shortcomings or disadvantages and always willing to keep learning, to keep moving forward. “Your disadvantage can be your advantage. And you have to learn how to work with that.”

Self-awareness, it seems, is just as important as the technical expertise required. You have to know what you’re capable of and what your limitations are. But you also have to be aware of how far there is to go: ”Learning never finishes, there is never a limit. This is the issue with ageism, the idea that anyone over a certain age is ‘out of touch’. You have to keep learning and understand that you will always be learning. The reality is many people start doing amazing things at 50. That really makes you think. In terms of diversity, it’s about not having preconceptions of what should be the normal route for something.”

By the end of the interview, with the coffee ordered and the trip back to the office looming, we are talking about the stillness in her life, the walks on Hampstead Heath and the countryside around London, growing vegetables in her allotment. “It is important to be present, to appreciate the small things.” With such an incredible career to date, which is showing no signs of slowing down, it is a wonder that she still finds the time. When we meet, Monica has recently returned from speaking at an Arbitration event in Honduras, something that is becoming increasingly frequent for her: “I could feel the excitement in the room when I was speaking. For many of the women in the audience, the legal profession is an uphill struggle.  Arbitration was something new to them. Sometimes, all you can do is plant the seed and help it grow.”

You can connect with Monica via twitter here.

To find out more about Monica, click here.

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