There were just four weeks until Harvard Law School’s commencement ceremony, and Salomé Van Bunnen LL.M. ’24 was more than 7,000 miles away — in East Africa. But far from regretting missing a few of her final days in Cambridge, Salomé was in Tanzania celebrating putting into practice a semester of hard work with Harvard Law’s Dispute Systems Design Clinic.

“It has been such an amazing opportunity and experience to participate in the creation of a new module on negotiation skills for an amazing all-girls school,” she says. “I am so grateful to have been able to use my time at HLS to learn practical skills, work with a wonderful team, whilst helping on a concrete project that I hope will have a lasting impact.”

She says that participating in the clinic, among other experiences as a student in Harvard’s LL.M. — or Master of Laws — program, has had a life-changing effect on her. Although alternative dispute resolution is still a growing field in her home country of Belgium, she wants to contribute to the culture change.

“We have mediators in Belgium, of course, and we have mediation firms, but it is an area that is less developed than it is in the U.S.,” she says. “It is an opportunity and also a challenge.”

Salomé, who also lived in London for seven years as a child, says she was shaped not only by growing up in two different places, but also by some personal challenges such as her scoliosis diagnosis. 

But these things only made her stronger, she says. “Resilience in difficult moments can really get you far. Being positive has helped me a lot. It’s important to sing, even when it rains,” adds Salomé, who, as a “huge fan” of karaoke, probably means that figuratively as well as literally.

From a young age, Salomé says she was bothered by injustice, always ready to speak up for others. As a teenager, she participated in a competition called the BBC and Telenet Public Speaking Awards, and in the process, realized that she enjoyed using critical thinking skills and constructing arguments.

“A classmate told me I should study law, because I’m willing to defend others,” she says. And that’s what she did, completing her law degrees in 2020, then going to work for an employment law firm for three years. There, she mostly represented employers dealing with issues like workplace harassment, unfair dismissals, data protection, and negotiations with trade unions.

But while she was in the process of being officially admitted to the bar in Belgium — which requires a three-year apprenticeship to become a lawyer — Salomé began to think about the direction she wanted to take in her legal career.

“Although I was really enjoying my team and the intellectual work, including helping clients, I really could feel that being a lawyer was not my final destination, that it was not a perfect match for me,” she says. “I wanted to find out how I could pivot my career to something I was deeply passionate about.”

The best way to figure it out, she decided, was to pursue an LL.M. degree. “I wanted to take one year off of work to take a step back from everything,” says Salomé. “It was not only a step back from my career, but also you leave your country, you leave your friends, and everything that you know and built.”

At Harvard Law, Salomé found the community and opportunities she had been looking for. “Every person that you meet here is just so inspiring.”

During her first semester, she participated in the International Human Rights Clinic, and she also began exploring a budding interest in alternative dispute resolution, taking a course in negotiation and another in mediation.

But perhaps her most powerful experiences have been in the Dispute Systems Design Clinic. Working with a school in Tanzania and her fellow clinic students, Salomé conducted research and applied her knowledge of the law and alternative dispute resolution to create a negotiation course especially aimed at women and girls.

“Our goal is to contribute to the empowerment of students with important tools that can help them navigate the challenges that they might face in their daily lives,” says Salomé, who recently visited in person the leaders at Secondary Education for Girls’ Advancement, in Morogoro, Tanzania. 

Salomé says she has enjoyed being able to make a difference while figuring out where she wants her career to go. “I have appreciated the opportunity to discover if I like doing this kind of work,” she adds. “I’ve discovered that I love working on dispute systems design, and I’m really convinced that it’s an amazing field.”

In her prior work in Belgium, she had suspected that litigation was not always the best way to resolve problems, “not only in terms of financial or time resources,” she says, “but also because litigation can sometimes create an even bigger lasting conflict.”

“Harvard gave me a new perspective, that it’s possible not only to solve disputes, but also to solve them differently, or even prevent them altogether. It taught me to see conflict and disputes as an opportunity for change and for growth — and that’s a new perspective for me.”

Praising Harvard Law’s “rich and diverse” LL.M. program, Salomé says she has also benefitted from learning from her fellow students. “Being confronted by so many people that have not hesitated to ask for change in their own countries, who have created nonprofits, who have stood up to political regimes, to see people actively working for change… that’s been inspiring.”

Salomé has blossomed personally, as well, fostering newfound passions for painting and yoga, along with her love for hiking and nature. And she’s found value in cultural differences. “In the American culture, there’s a sense that everything is possible, and you’re really encouraged to chase your dreams and to believe in yourself. This perspective has made me grow a lot.”

Salomé will likely channel that can-do spirit when she returns home after graduation, where she hopes to build a career in alternative dispute resolution. She will continue to explore where she can have the most impact, whether it be in the private sector, academia, or even in her own practice. But whatever she does, she is certain that the work will have meaning. 

“My goal is to participate in the change of culture around dispute resolution and to help individuals and organizations to see conflict as a growth opportunity. My hope is to bring a positive change through ADR and the redesigning of our systems.”

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