Human rights by other means

Diane Krieger • January 31, 2024
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In 2022, Betsy Popken, JD 2010, was named executive director of the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law.

That’s quite a coup for a young white-collar attorney working in the San Francisco offices of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLC.

But Popken, 39, has carved an unusual career path combining Big Law practice and international human rights work.

Since graduating from USC Gould’s now-discontinued joint JD/LLM program with the London School of Economics, Popken has been a key player in high-stakes peace negotiations in Geneva. Through continuous involvement with the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG), she has contributed to ceasefire talks and political process efforts for Yemen, Syria, Darfur and Libya. She has trained negotiators in Istanbul, Doha, Riyadh and Beirut in constitution drafting, electoral processes, transitional justice and many other human rights-related skills and concepts. Before the Russian invasion, she advised Ukraine’s Parliament on good governance in the public sector. She served on the World Economic Forum’s steering committee for the responsible use of technology, and until recently, was a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Betsy Popken, JD 2010

All of which made Popken the ideal candidate to lead Berkeley’s Human Rights Center. The elite center is a hub for research and investigations into international human rights abuses that has trained thousands of professionals now working in the field. As executive director, Popken is in charge of all administrative functions of the grant-funded research center, which employs around 15 full-time faculty and professional staffers, plus some 15 consultant collaborators.

The 2008 financial crisis was the catalyst for Popken’s human rights career. Squeezed by the economic downturn, many law firms could not immediately honor employment offers they had made to graduates of the 2010 class. Instead, the San Francisco offices of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, where Popken had been a summer intern in 2009, offered $60,000 stipends to work 12- to 18-months in a public interest law fellowship.

“It was Orrick’s way of holding on until they could afford us again—which, to my mind, was the best thing that could have happened to me professionally,” Popken says. “It set me up to do the things I really wanted to do. We got to choose where we worked, and I chose PILPG.”

Almost overnight, she found herself contributing to UN-mediated peace negotiations on the Darfur region of Sudan. After the Arab Spring ignited, she counseled the Libyan National Transitional Council on the advisability of ceasefire talks with the Qaddafi regime. Later that summer, she met with Syrian opposition leaders in Washington, D.C.

At the end of her fellowship year, PILPG offered Popken a permanent job, but she opted to return to Orrick with the understanding that she would bring along a thick portfolio of PILPG pro-bono projects. The firm agreed, and later allowed her to take a three-month secondment to assist Syrian opposition negotiators during peace talks in Geneva. Orrick also agreed to nearly two years leave of absence in 2015-16, when Popken moved to Turkey and launched PILPG’s Istanbul bureau.

“I am so grateful to Orrick,” Popken says. “Through them, I was able to have the career I have today.”

Orrick benefited too. Alongside her white-collar criminal work, Popken independently developed expertise in human rights issues raised by emerging technologies. She helped establish Orrick’s global ESG division and co-founded the business and human rights division in partnership with the firm’s Geneva office, advising clients on implementation of the UN’s “Ruggie Principles.” These lay out international standards for balancing the competing claims of free expression, the right to information and responsible internet governance at the global level.

“Most Big Tech companies have human rights divisions now,” she explains, “and they are increasingly focused on instituting responsible AI practices.”

According to Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, about 20 percent of what ChatGPT produces is false information, sometimes called AI hallucinations.

What then, Popken wonders, are the human rights ramifications of judges in Latin America known to be using ChatGPT to make rulings? Or teachers in the United Arab Emirates depending on generative AI to grade student papers? Or journalists, from African sportswriters to war correspondents in Gaza, relying on AI to build their stories?

Popken’s research group at Berkeley is busy conducting a human rights impact assessment and developing a model algorithmic evaluation to assess the downstream effects of large language models, like ChatGPT, on human rights. It is the first study of its kind, she says.

A scholar in her own right, Popken has presented lectures and published more than a dozen articles at the intersection of technology and human rights, including on such topics as supply chain risks related to Uyghur forced labor and how Syrian women use social media to advance peace.

Growing up in Petaluma, Calif., north of San Francisco, Popken was inspired by nightly dinner conversations revolving around current events and social justice themes. Her parents were enthusiastic internationalists, having studied political science in college though they ended up working in other fields.

Accepted into UCLA, Popken majored in political science with an IR focus, and minored in public policy and English. After graduation, she worked a year at the Pacific Council on International Policy before entering law school.

Popken took advantage of the dual JD/LLM program, which allowed her to spend her 3L year at the London School of Economics. At USC, she participated in the Hale Moot Court Honors Program, winning the brief competition. USC didn’t have the International Human Rights Clinic back then. “Otherwise I would have done it,” she says.

She was a first-year summer law clerk at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in San Francisco. The following summer, she worked at Orrick.

A little over a year into her executive directorship at Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, Popken finds her work “interesting, fun and really impactful.”

In addition to leading the center’s generative AI research team, she spearheads its work on international peace negotiations in collaboration with the UN Institute on Training and Research and PILPG, where she remains active as a senior peace fellow. Popken also directs the center’s new climate justice program and teaches courses at Berkeley Law on technology and human rights and international peace negotiations. Previously she taught negotiation at Stanford Law School as a lecturer.

In her free time, Popken hangs out with family and friends. She now lives in the marina district of San Francisco.  (Her old hometown of Petaluma, Popken volunteers, with a grin, is the egg capital of the world and hosts the World’s Ugliest Dog contest.) She enjoys daily walks with Sunny, her Australian labradoodle, at Crissy Field Beach and the Presidio. She hikes on weekends, loves to cook Asian food, and devours murder mysteries.

Her advice to Trojans who want to break the Big Law career mold:

  • “Do things that you want to do. Create new organizations if that’s what is required. Figure out a way to make it happen, even if it means finagling something that’s not standard.”
  • “Be open to opportunities, and when one comes around, be prepared to jump.”
  • “Be open to pro bono. That’s how you keep your foot in the door.”


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