Photo of James Cavallaro
Photo by Colin Clark

James Cavallaro prefers to be called Jim. “I hear ‘James’ with a stuffy British accent,” he says. And he’s anything but that. Born and raised in Flatbush, he was an out-of-place kid from Brooklyn at Harvard when he went there to study political science. 
“In the early 1980s a lot of the kids were from exclusive prep schools and their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers all were alums. One of my grandfathers drove a cab and the other was a machinist,” he says.

Education was important in his family (his mother taught social studies in New York public schools and all of the Cavallaro kids went on to college, three to Ivy League schools), and he was expected to do well. He was in what was known then as “Intellectually Gifted Classes” and invited to take the entrance exam to Stuyvesant High School, one of the most exclusive public schools in New York. He didn’t want to change schools so he played hooky that day. “I wanted to stay in my neighborhood. I loved it. That’s where all of my friends were. That’s where my baseball team was,” he says. “I didn’t realize that I could have just thrown the exam—that hadn’t occurred to me.”

Cavallaro filled his after school time with work (at first in a restaurant when he was just 13), the school show, the student newspaper, and—mostly—with baseball.

“I played all the time when I was growing up. If I were good enough to have been a pro that’s what I would have done,” says Cavallaro, who still holds a grudge against the former Brooklyn Dodgers for deserting his borough. “I will always root for the team playing against the LA Dodgers. I have not come to terms with that, even though it happened before I was born.” His neighborhood was comprised primarily of Mets fans, but somehow the Chicago Cubs found their way into his heart. “What can I say, I gravitate to underdogs.”

That early affinity with the underdog shaped his world view and career path. He grew up watching Perry Mason and was sure he wanted to be a lawyer from an early age—though there were no role models in the profession for him. “I didn’t know any lawyers. But I believed the shows. I had this idea that lawyers fought for the little guy, for justice,” he says.

So he went off to Harvard on loans and scholarships and, despite the culture shock, settled in and excelled. “A lot of opportunity opens up for you at a school like that,” he says.

He discovered politics at college and after graduating took an internship in Congressman Ed Markey’s D.C. office and then moved to El Paso, Texas, to work at a shelter for Latin American refugees displaced by upheaval in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. “It was then that I appreciated how very privileged I was,” he says.

But law school was always in the cards. He chose Berkeley Law for its (then) value. “Once you established residency, which you did by the second year, tuition was very low. The joke was that they threw in law classes when you signed up for membership in the university’s gym.”

He excelled at law school, working on law review and earning Order of the Coif honors—though it did take him six years to graduate. After his third semester he went to Chile to work on the defense of political prisoners sentenced to death by Pinochet’s military courts. One semester there turned into more than five. “When I finally went back to Boalt three years later, I didn’t know anyone—my classmates had all graduated.”

But he did graduate and clerked for Chief Judge Dolores K. Sloviter of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He then took a position with Human Rights Watch, opening its joint office with the Center for Justice and International Law in Rio de Janeiro and serving as its director, overseeing research, reporting, and litigation against Brazil before the Inter-American system’s human rights bodies. In 1999, he founded the Global Justice Center, which is now a leading Brazilian human rights nongovernmental organization. Today, he is a world-renowned scholar and litigator on international human rights—who brings to the classroom both extensive field experience and passion for his work. He took his first clinical teaching position in 2003 at Harvard Law School. He joins the Stanford Law School clinical faculty this year as professor of law and director of the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic (see page 30 for more information about the IHRCR clinic).