Second-year law student Elizabeth Simper’s undergraduate study on two topics — space policy and international atrocities — stoked a boundless curiosity that led her to study at the University of Virginia School of Law.
Growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona, Simper earned bachelor’s degrees in global studies and global health from Arizona State University.
At UVA Law, she serves on the editorial board of the Virginia Journal of International Law, is vice president of the J.B. Moore Society, and is a member of the National Security Law Forum, Virginia Law First-Generation Professionals and Virginia Law Women. She was also a Monroe Leigh Fellow.
In our occasional series “Star Witness,” Simper discussed how growing up in an immigrant family and working at the Office of Military Commissions for her fellowship has nurtured her education.
Tell us something about your life before law school.
During my time at Arizona State University, I was fortunate to have amazing mentors, one of whom was Timiebi Aganaba, an expert in space policy and law. I assisted her in her research concerning space legal frameworks pertaining to open-source design. Her work sparked my interest in space law — a body of law that is gaining more attention as more participants become involved in the final frontier. I wrote my senior thesis on the topic of space law, specifically how outdated space treaties are proving inadequate to address new challenges, such as privatization and orbital space debris. By the end of my thesis, I realized that there is still so much more to explore. It’s an area that I will always have my eye on.
Why law school?
In my sophomore year of college, I took a class that explored the establishment and aftermath of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. In this class, I was introduced to the field of international law, which I was taken with immediately. I found it fascinating how sovereign states interact with one another through different legal establishments, and how the boundaries of international law are continuously formed, tested and broken. The more I studied the subject, the more I wanted to learn. In my last semester of college, I interned at the American Society of International Law in Washington, D.C. My experiences in assisting the society with its work and interacting with international attorneys solidified my desire to go to law school and hopefully practice international law in the future.
I was really drawn to the range of academic strengths at UVA. Between the different programs, centers, clinics, journals and pro bono opportunities, I felt like no matter what I chose to pursue, I couldn’t go wrong. I was (and still am) very impressed with the scope of classes offered at UVA, particularly in regard to international law and national security. The professors, which I have now been able to witness for myself, are incredible teachers with masteries of their focus areas.
Pro bono was another opportunity that interested me, and something I was able to do as a 1L. I assisted Professor Jill Goldenziel at the Marine Corps University in her project titled “Weapon of the Weak: How Small States are Using International Law to Fight Great Powers,” which sought to catalogue international cases where traditionally weaker states utilized international law to prevail against powerful states. It was a fascinating project that concurrently helped me broaden my knowledge of international law.
What’s been your most impactful law school experience?
Starting law school in the middle of a pandemic was, in short, scary. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to focus in a virtual setting, or connect with my peers. But over the course of the year, I found myself constantly reaffirmed in my decision to go to law school. The quality of education still shone through, whether it was in a virtual or socially distanced in-person class. My classmates bonded over our unique situation and found ways to support one other. This experience has been remarkable to live through, and I’m looking forward to engaging on a new level at UVA this upcoming year.
What did you learn with your Monroe Leigh Fellowship?
For my Monroe Leigh Fellowship, I interned at the Office of the Chief Prosecutor in the Office of Military Commissions. The office prosecutes law of war crimes committed by non-U.S. citizens against the U.S. and its partners. This was an incredible experience. I was able to look behind the scenes of a court that is frequently in the news and gain invaluable legal experience by supporting real-life prosecutions. What drew me initially to the internship was the chance to witness how matters of international law intersect with U.S. national security issues, and to see more clearly the role of the U.S. in international law. I was able to perceive this in my work assisting the motions and appeals team. I carried out legal research concerning international terrorism and the law of war, and drafted legal memoranda and briefs to assist the team. I was also lucky enough to have my classmate, Eric Smith, be a fellow intern with me. My time at the Office of the Chief Prosecutor was remarkable, and I am very grateful for the Monroe Leigh Fellowship for providing the opportunity to experience the internship.
What’s something your classmates don’t know about you?
My first language is Czech. My parents are from the Czech Republic and immigrated in the ’90s. I barely knew English when I started kindergarten but quickly caught on. Today, I still speak Czech with my family. I especially love cooking and baking traditional Czech recipes, from guláš to sweet kolaches.
Growing up in a family that celebrates its global heritage led me to be drawn to anything international. I loved to read about world cultures or watch media from around the world. My deep interest for anything global carried into my undergraduate career and then sharpened into an interest in international law.
What’s next for you?
At the moment, I aspire to do any internationally facing work during my career. I’m excited to see how it will progress, and I want to keep an open mind toward anything that might come my way. That being said, I would love to be working in the space legal sector in the future, as I think it’s such a ripe legal field with so many issues to explore.
For next summer, I have been fortunate enough to accept a summer associate position at Milbank in Washington, D.C.