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Linda Taylor, LLB'79

Distinguished Alumni Award Winner Linda Taylor, Shares Insights and Advice with Students

Some 35 years later, the UN lawyer returns to her alma mater to talk about how to break into a UN career

By Deb Cummings

After an extraordinary, globe-hopping career, Linda Taylor, BA’76, LLB’79, came home to accept the 2014 Distinguished Alumni Award at UCalgary’s annual Arch Awards — and stayed a while.

Long enough to discover UCalgary’s Faculty of Law is no longer on the top floor of the Bio Sciences building, where she studied in the late ’70s, but now occupies impressive digs in Murray Fraser Hall. This is where we found her last November speaking to students of Law, Political Science and International Relations, about how these specific degrees can take you anywhere on the planet.

Back in the ’70s, Taylor couldn’t even study international law at the University of Calgary (it wasn’t in the syllabus) but the former political science, and later law grad certainly has practised it — and around the world. From living in Gaza to Geneva, and most currently Manhattan, Taylor claims her career at the UN began one very cold Calgary winter.

“I was working late one night at Code Hunter Wittmann, waiting for the word processing department to turn around a legal written brief for court next day,” she recalls. While waiting, Taylor was flipping through an issue of The Economist and spied an ad for lawyers, needed in Gaza.

“I had never heard of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East,” she admits. “But I knew that Gaza was on the Mediterranean and it sounded warm, so, on a whim I applied.” 

As they say, the rest is history. 

After a rough first week on the job, when early morning calls to prayer from a nearby mosque and donkeys braying in the streets kept waking her up, Taylor wondered if she’d made a horrible mistake. By week two, however, Taylor was "negotiating the resolution of tort and contract claims made against the Agency and giving advice on a wide range of matters, including staff and donor relations and a customs dispute between the Agency and a government."

Currently executive director of the Office of Administration of Justice at the UN, Taylor adds: “One of the best things about the experience was living and working in a different culture, in a pressure-cooker environment with lawyers from different legal systems, and with people from the region and around the world. Not only did I make lifelong friends, but I was able to see the Middle East and observe, close-up, political developments as they unfolded in the region.”

Stressing that her career with the UN has been immensely satisfying, Taylor then deconstructed the UN, splitting it into a “family of organizations, rather than just one entity.” 

This is critical for anyone looking to apply to the UN.  When people think of the UN, they tend to think of the UN Secretariat headquartered in New York, which employs some 44,000 staff members, the majority of whom are stationed in the field.  However, there are also various UN agencies, funds and programs which handle their own recruitment through their own websites. 

In terms of political mediation, which is part of the UN’s department of political affairs (DPA), there are jobs held by those with law degrees as well as others who are specialists in political science and international relations. The DPA plays a critical role in monitoring and assessing global political developments and attempts to identify and mitigate potential crises before they escalate.

Other job opportunities for law and political science majors are in peacekeeping missions, “which are good entry points when you’re young and don’t have a family or obligations,” said Taylor. "Not everyone is equipped to do that sort of thing, but you get a lot of responsibility and experience very quickly, plus it's very hands-on and you develop 'street credibility' that puts you in good standing later on." 

“These days at the UN, it’s increasingly difficult to advance without spending time in the field. Not only is it a good thing to do but it gives you a unique perspective on the work of the organization and its importance to the people the UN serves,” she advised.

Other job-hunting tips from Taylor:

  • Check The Economist for international work.
  • Check careers at the UN Secretariat
  • Explore the UN’s Young Professionals Programme, the Associate Expert Programme and others
  • The United Nations Association in Canada  matches qualified young Canadians with UN agencies worldwide. 
  • UN Volunteers Programme targets those 25 and older. Check details here
  • Check the websites of those UN agencies, such as funds and programmes, that interest you. Most sites can be accessed through the links found at the International Civil Service Commission website. 
  • Enhance your chances by learning another of the official languages of the UN; they are English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and Chinese.
  • Consider postgrad studies in law, political science and international relations.
  • Obtain relevant experience elsewhere — say, with an NGO.
  • Be tenacious. Most people who land jobs at the UN apply numerous times, before they succeed.
  • Study or work abroad — something that will show you’re interested in what the UN does.

Taylor wrapped up her talk by stressing, “there is no one path to the United Nations. Mine has been happenstance and I attribute it all to that very cold, Calgary winter.”