Face to Face with Elizabeth Andersen, Executive Director of the World Justice Project

Founded in 2006, the World Justice Project is an independent organisation that works to advance the rule of law globally. Helmed by Executive Director Elizabeth Andersen, the WJP is a global non-profit, monitoring the rule of law in over 100 countries and with offices in Washington, DC, Seattle, Singapore, and Mexico City.

From a young age Elizabeth Andersen has been interested in the way the world works. Perhaps a symptom of growing up in a small town in western Michigan, in the Midwest region of the United States, she has always been curious about the wider world and wanted to learn more about it. This interest inspired undergraduate studies in history and Russian Studies, including study abroad in Moscow.

After college, Andersen explored a variety of careers, working for a stint as a journalist, she then served as a press secretary for a U.S. presidential campaign, before later coming onboard the team of a non-profit, where she worked to promote public interest legal careers. These early work experiences confirmed Andersen’s path and she headed back to university, this time to gain a joint degree in law and public policy. She left with a Masters in Public Affairs from Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs and a JD from Yale Law School. She says of this transition: “I was deeply interested in government and public policy and knew I wanted to work in public affairs in some capacity, but as a young person, I was not sure about my vocation and toyed with journalism as well as law and public administration.”

“In the end, I pursued a joint degree in law and public policy because I thought I would gain a breadth of knowledge and skills--relating to economics, government, and finance as well as law – that would provide a useful foundation for a career in public affairs. In many ways, my career has been blend of journalism, public policy and law,” Andersen reflects.

Although she is licensed as a lawyer in the State of New York, Andersen has not practiced law “in a traditional sense”, she says. Instead, after graduating, Andersen worked for a period of time as a law clerk in New York before accepting a role serving as a legal assistant at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

“That was an extraordinary experience, as I was in the first class of legal assistants at the Tribunal as it grappled with foundational questions about its authority and jurisdiction,” Andersen recalls.

“It was there that I found my professional passion – the role of law and legal institutions in curbing violence, strengthening governance, and supporting peaceful, prosperous, and successful societies. And I’ve been working on that in one way or another ever since,” she adds.

For Andersen, her professional passions and the way they fit into a career has been an ever-evolving learning process. However, it was after this experience that she gained a clearer understanding of how her future career may incorporate her diverse interests. This led her to Human Rights Watch, where Andersen worked for eight years as a researcher and advocate, before she eventually progressed to the position of director of its Europe and Central Asia 

The allure of law remained strong for Andersen, and she soon moved into international legal development, serving as Director of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative (CEELI), working to advance the rule of law in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.

“Then, after eight years as Executive Director of the American Society of International Law, where I focused on advancing the rule of law on the international plane, the ABA asked me to return and direct its global rule of law development efforts, the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI), which I did from 2014 to 2018,” she says.

Promoting Greater Understanding

Andersen’s career may be eclectic, but her role with the WJP is a way of wrapping together all these elements and passions perfectly. Since stepping up as executive director for the WJP, Andersen has succeeded in balancing her various interests while also promoting access to and stimulating interest around rule of law.

“Effective rule of law reduces corruption, combats poverty and disease, and protects people from injustices, large and small. It is the foundation for communities of justice, opportunity, and peace — underpinning development, accountable government, and respect for fundamental rights,” Andersen tells Hong Kong Lawyer.

She breaks it down, explaining the WJP supports a global, multidisciplinary movement for the rule of law, through three lines of work. The organisation collects and analyses independent rule of law data across multiple countries, it also supports research and educational opportunities that foster understanding about the importance of rule of law. Finally, the organisation works to build and connect a global network of policy-makers and activists to advance the rule of law through strategic partnerships, convenings, coordinated advocacy, and support for locally-led initiatives.

The WJP also produces its own Rule of Law Index, which quantifies and maps out the extent to which countries adhere to the rule of law in practice across eight factors and 44 sub-factors.

“Our latest edition of the Index relies on more than 120,000 household and 3,800 expert surveys to measure how the rule of law is experienced and perceived by the general public in 126 countries and jurisdictions worldwide,” Andersen says, noting the index also offers valuable data which can then enable stakeholders to assess adherence to the rule of law in practice and “identify a country’s strengths and weaknesses in comparison to similarly situated countries, and track changes over time”, she explains.

This also provides a wealth of knowledge that has been cited by heads of state, chief justices, business leaders, and public officials, Andersen says, noting that more than 1,000 media outlets, across 190 countries have relied on the Index data so far.

Bringing Data to Life

While Andersen may have only joined the WJP in 2018, she has already been involved in a variety of important projects and worked hard to put important topics on the discussion agenda.

“One experience that stands out was our recent World Justice Forum, which we convened on a theme of ‘Realizing Justice for All’ and with a goal of advancing efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 16,” recalls Andersen, calling it an “impressive global gathering” that included more than 500 public and private sector actors from across more than 70 counties “all working in one way or another to address the very profound gap in access to justice we see in rich and poor countries alike.” The organisation’s research also highlights this gap. More than five billion people globally have unmet justice needs, Andersen says, including 1.5 billion who cannot access the justice system to solve their everyday civil and criminal justice problems. “While this justice gap is daunting, I found the Forum gathering an extremely hopeful experience,” says Andersen.

While Andersen only joined the team around a year ago, she has admired the organisation since it was founded, and “jumped at the chance to lead its work” for a number of reasons she says. “First, I really believe in the rule of law cause, as complicated and difficult as it is to achieve. I firmly believe that the rule of law – broadly conceived to include accountability, absence of corruption, order and security, open government, respect for fundamental rights, regulatory enforcement, and effective and accessible civil and criminal justice – is foundational to successful societies. Advancing that idea is compelling work,” she says.

In addition to these areas, Andersen also appreciates the WJP approach specifically – namely its focus on bringing “definitional rigor and data to the rule of law movement,” she says.

“This is critically important in today’s world, where we are seeing a global drift toward authoritarianism, often facilitated by the misappropriation of laws and legal institutions in ways that erode checks on government powers. Sometimes sold as ‘rule of law’ reforms, these authoritarian moves are more aptly characterised as ‘rule by law’. Against this backdrop, the WJP Rule of Law Index very helpfully cuts through the ‘rule of law’ rhetoric by reflecting the experience and perceptions of both legal experts and average citizens in a given country,” Andersen points out.

“And finally, I was drawn by the potential for mining the data that WJP collects on rule of law to inform better policy making. With data from hundreds of thousands of households across the globe and over multiple years, we have only begun to scratch the surface of what we can learn about building the rule of law foundation for successful societies. I’m terrifically excited about leading that work in the coming years,” she adds.

When asked how lawyers, the judiciary, and the government in Hong Kong could assist in improving Hong Kong’s ranking in the Rule of Law Index, Andersen says the WJP doesn’t generally take a stance on matters of policy or reform in specific countries, preferring to play the role of “an honest, independent broker of information, holding up a mirror to societies to see how the rule of law is ultimately being experienced and perceived by the general public in that jurisdiction.” She encourages those interested in improving the city’s stance to study the WJP’s data and evaluate it.

“Overall, the rule of law in Hong Kong is relatively strong, ranking 16th out of 126 countries and jurisdictions studied globally, 16th among high-income jurisdictions, and 5th in the East Asia and Pacific region in our 2019 edition of the Index” Andersen says. “Of course, perfect rule of law is never fully achieved, and there is room for progress even in the most rule-of-law-protective environments.” Andersen suggests that those interested can probe Hong Kong’s Rule of Law Index profile to identify factors of relative strength and weakness to consider areas for improvement. She adds: “More generally, there is important work for law societies and bar associations to do in promoting the rule of law and, in particular, fostering understanding and appreciation for this idea in the broader society. There is much that the legal profession can do to build and sustain constituencies for the rule of law, by setting standards and holding themselves and others to them, by undertaking educational programming that explains laws and legal institutions to the public they serve, and by supporting legal aid, pro bono initiatives, and reforms to increase access to justice for all.”

Progressing Forward

Although Andersen may have worn many professional hats over the years, her legal grounding has played a significant role in the way her career has blossomed over time. Considering what has become a varied, successful career championing greater understanding of law across the globe, Andersen reflects on her early experiences as a student as having a profound impact on her professional success.

“Two elements of my education and early experience jump out as having been particularly instrumental in my career,” Andersen tells Hong Kong Lawyer. One important element that has been “invaluable” to her career, according to Andersen, was a broad-based Williams College education that allowed her to pursue a number of interests and gain a firm grounding in liberal arts, before she pursued law and public policy academically.

“It has given me tools and perspective to work effectively in global organisations, to engage with many different legal systems and cultures, and to appreciate the broader social, political, and economic contexts in which law operates. At the WJP, we believe that the rule of law is a multidisciplinary effort, to which people in all professions and walks of life can and should contribute,” she says.

She cites the diverse skills of WJP’s staff, which includes “the economists, who crunch the data behind the Rule of Law Index, and the documentary film-makers, who tell compelling rule of law stories with mass appeal,” and she notes they have “as much or more to contribute as do those of us with formal legal training”.

The next important lesson that continues to inform Andersen’s work is the importance of listening to “whomever the law is intended to serve”.

“I learned this lesson as a student at Yale, where I spent a lot of time working in the homelessness and poverty law clinics, providing basic legal services to disadvantaged populations in New Haven, CT. It was there that the legal theories and doctrines I’d been memorising from my textbooks and lecture notes came to life,” Andersen says.

“The circumstances facing my clinical clients were invariably more complicated than I expected and defied my assumptions about who they were and what their problems were. The experience challenged me to listen hard and think creatively about what the law could do for them. It was in the clinical programs that I came to appreciate how the law works (or doesn’t) in people’s lives, and that finding solutions begins with listening,” she reflects, noting this was an important skill she was able to later bring to her work with Human Rights Watch, the ABA ROLI, and her current role.

“It is an approach that I am proud to say informs WJP’s work – its Rule of Law Index and also its recent Global Insights on Access to Justice report – measuring the rule of law through painstaking surveys of hundreds of thousands of people about their experiences of governance and the justice system,” says Andersen.

While she considers these valuable lessons to her particular career path, Andersen considers them relevant to all lawyers, as they enable legal professionals to truly understand and meet the needs of their clients effectively.

When asked for advice for other lawyers who want to transition into international legal roles, as Andersen has throughout her career, the Executive Director says being open is key, as is awareness of global affairs. “Particularly when speaking to young lawyers interested in an international legal career, I encourage them to keep an eye on the horizon for global developments that are spawning new institutions and areas of practice,” she says.

She explains how international developments affected her own career in this way. “For me, graduating from law school in 1993, my career was very much shaped by the emergence in the early 90s of two new areas of international legal activity – transitional justice (particularly in the form of international criminal accountability for gross violations of human rights) and international rule of law development. These fields emerged from the horrors of conflicts in the Balkans, Rwanda and elsewhere, and from the legal transitions in the former Soviet bloc countries, respectively,” she notes.

For those who do wish to pursue a global path of their own, being in synch with the legal climate, and the various external and internal factors and challenges which shape this is a good first step. “I suggest lawyers look to the emerging international challenges, such as cyber security and climate change, to find today’s exciting international legal opportunities,” Andersen advises. 


North Asia Journalist, Thomson Reuters