The University of Newcastle, Australia

From Litigation to American Indian Law to Global Value Chains

Dr Kevin Sobel-Read’s career has followed several diverse paths since his first professional position, which saw him practising business defence litigation on the 43rd floor of a Manhattan law firm.

This insight into corporate commerce motivated Kevin to explore the relationship between people and law, and in a somewhat unusual career move for a corporate lawyer, he complemented his practice by obtaining a PhD in Cultural Anthropology.

Earlier, during his Juris Doctor degree, Kevin had interned in an American Indian legal organisation and became interested in issues of sovereignty in the United States. Peering down from his office window at the New Yorkers milling around outside Central Park, he returned again and again to the idea that sovereignty – what the people on the sidewalks below presumably had, but so many American Indians didn’t – must somehow be linked to money.

So he began researching ways that governments manage their sovereignty by regulating money in and out. “Countries are essentially like businesses. You have to have money coming in so that you can fund things that you want, but you don’t want to sell out completely because then you lose control. So governments are essentially mechanisms to balance that out.”

Kevin continued practising law throughout his postdoctoral study, and although the decision may have served him well financially and professionally, he laughs about the confusion that he caused among his friends and colleagues.

“The two fields are about as different as they can be. Anthropologists are seen as these crazy leftists and corporate lawyers are…not.

“So neither group could understand why I had anything to do with the other.”

Still, Kevin points out how important these different perspectives are. “There are lots of scholars who know how money and law in the corporate world work, and many others who have a solid understanding of how different people experience various problems on the ground – but there aren’t many of us who do both and try to link those things together.”

From holiday to research focus

Although his initial PhD project proposal was focussed on American Indians, a holiday to the Cook Islands saw a change in the direction of his research.

“Being the obsessive anthropologist that I am, I thought that while I was there I might as well chat with people.

“I emailed some government lawyers and was lucky enough that the then-Assistant Solicitor General agreed to meet with me.

“I had an amazing chat with him and became really inspired about the Cook Islands. Suddenly my future was taking a whole new path.”

The Cook Islands were originally colonised by the British but they became independent in 1965. That independence is unique, however, because the country’s relationship with New Zealand is so close that Cook Islanders are also citizens of New Zealand (even though the opposite is not true).

“So I thought, ‘Well this is an interesting test tube, we'll see what happens.’ I packed up my family and we travelled around the South Pacific for a year. A vast majority of Cook Islanders now live in New Zealand and Australia – so we spent most of our time in New Zealand and Australia too, meeting with Cook Islanders and talking about how they link back to their home country.

“In particular, I wondered, ‘What does it mean to have a country, when most of the people from your country actually live somewhere else - how do you maintain connections?’”

It was through his network of Cook Islander contacts that Kevin was able to create a Cook Islands Legal Internship course when he was later recruited to UON in 2014. This course is funded by the New Colombo Plan at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and through this funding Kevin will be leading another group of students to the Cook Islands in 2018. The Cook Islands are an ideal place for students to gain high level experience (their legal system is based on the British system and so is similar to Australia’s), while also learning about how different cultures can affect people’s relationship with the law.

“When I took the first group over there in 2016, the students all kind of freaked out – ‘We can't do it, we're just students, the things they're asking us to do are too high-level!’ – so I said, essentially: suck it up, this is the real world, they need your help.

“It was a really interesting and wonderful experience for me as a teacher. Through those three weeks I could just see that the students grew up, they got into it, they became confident and they realised that they were capable of doing big things and making real contributions.”

Another of Kevin’s key interests is global value chains – looking at everything that happens in a supply chain, from marketing a product to recycling it – and understanding what is happening in terms of power and law.

“Most of these chains are made up of strings of one-to-one contracts - so strictly in the law, the company at one end of the chain doesn’t have any legal control over the other. This is a problem when we want to hold large companies responsible for the labour tragedies and environmental harms that are taking place at the far ends of chains, especially in developing countries.

“These large companies have allowed a lot of terrible things to happen in the world. But with shifting attitudes towards – for instance fair and ethical trade – there are some positive changes that are coming about.

“Sometimes these large companies even want to improve worker welfare and the environment, but they’re hindered from getting more involved in the factories and farms at the end of their chains. In a nutshell, our legal system can expose them to great financial risk even when they’re simply trying to help. So one of the things my research is working toward is how to rebalance the incentives and risks of our legal framework so that large companies both have to – and want to – provide greater benefits all along their chains.”