Planting Seeds

As she enters the legal profession, Yael Julie Fischer ’10 is set on integrating globally impactful pro bono work into her corporate law practice

By Andrea Thompson

Summer 2011

When Kirkland & Ellis Associate Yael Julie Fischer ’10 traveled to Kabul in August 2009 to work for the agricultural and environmental nonprofit organization Global Partnership for Afghanistan (GPFA), it wasn’t without some trepidation. The elections scheduled for that month had brought escalating threats from insurgents hoping to scare citizens away from the polls, and suicide bombings remained a constant worry. Fischer could not help but notice the apprehension that was palpable among the organization’s Afghan staff, but she recalls being inspired by the spirit of determination that seemed to trump all fears. “There was an absolute commitment to voting,” she says, adding that their optimism about the future was infectious. “They wanted people to understand that there’s more to Afghanistan than the war-ravaged side.”

Fischer became involved with GPFA after meeting a member of the organization’s board through a Columbia Law School classmate. Three weeks and hours of research later, she was on a flight headed to Kabul.

While living and working in Afghanistan, Fischer wrote grant proposals and completed various research projects for GPFA, which offers a wide range of agricultural programs designed to help the country’s farmers boost productivity, manage water resources, and increase profitability. The group provides farmers with seedlings for vegetable gardens, vineyards, and fruit, nut, and poplar trees. It also organizes and deploys Afghan citizens who are trained in forestry and horticulture to help farmers implement new methods of cultivation. GPFA employs 180 Afghans, has reached 12,000 farmers, and has planted 8 million trees.

Fischer, who chronicled some of her experiences working for GPFA in a piece for huffingtonpost.com, credits the group’s success to a determination to draw upon local resources and knowledge. “The model is so simple and so intuitive, and yet the impact is so tremendous,” she says. The organization consults with shuras—local village councils—to identify what communities need, and many of the projects GPFA helps support are requested directly by citizens. When members of a village in Wardak Province approached GPFA with their desire to bring electricity to the area, for instance, Fischer wrote a grant application that resulted in $10,000 to supplement what the villagers had already raised for the project.

During her time in Afghanistan, Fischer also put together proposals for the Women Working Together initiative, which sends female agricultural experts to instruct women who have been widowed or otherwise left responsible for their extended families in basic skills like cultivation, weeding, and storage. Offering assistance to Afghan women is of particular importance given that the restrictions they face—from traveling alone to conversing with men outside their own families—often prohibit them from reaching out for help.

Now back in America, Fischer practices general litigation at Kirkland & Ellis in Manhattan. The work is different, and her office environment is a far cry from the jagged mountain peaks and seemingly endless grasslands of Afghanistan. But she has continued her involvement with GPFA by co-founding the organization’s Young Professionals Group, which has hosted events in New York City. And she plans to work with the organization for years to come.

Fischer says she entered law school with a desire to press for social change, inspired in part by her work on political campaigns in Virginia and Ohio, and by a summer spent volunteering in Ghana. She is set on proving that corporate law and public interest work are not mutually exclusive. “I feel very lucky that I have role models who have found a way to fuse the two,” Fischer says.

Andrea Thompson has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times, among other publications.