You might have heard that Amal Clooney is married to someone famous. That is perhaps the unfortunate reason her wardrobe and lifestyle drive more publicity here in America than her life's focus on international human rights. But today, during her first speaking engagement in the United States, the Lebanon-born and U.K.-raised barrister deftly and warmly steered the conversation as keynote speaker for the 13th annual New Friends New Life WINGS luncheon at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas.
A Dallas-based nonprofit organization, New Friends New Life focuses on providing education, job training, interim-financial assistance, legal assistance, mental help services and spiritual support to girls and women involved in human trafficking and sexual exploitation. According to a 2014 report by the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas ranks second in the nation for number of calls to the National Human Trafficking Resources Center and, according to NFNL, the organization serves around 1,000 local women and children annually. Today's event raised an estimated $1 million.
During the luncheon, WFAA-TV journalist Shelly Slater interviewed Clooney, who talked about her life's work and her lifelong commitment to human rights. Here are ten takeaways.
Her first trip to Texas was slightly more stressful.
"When I was coming here, I thought about my first-ever trip to Texas. It started when I first began working as a lawyer in New York ... I got a call from the assigning partner who said, 'Yeah, have you ever heard of Enron?' The next day, my clients were on the front page of The New York Times, and I was working for the next two years in Houston. That was my introduction to Texas, so it's nice being here in Dallas under much more pleasant and less stressful circumstances."
Public life has changed dramatically since her high-profile wedding
Despite the luncheon's heavy topic, Clooney spoke often with a sense of humor.
"As a barrister, sometimes here in America I am asked, 'What's it like working in the coffee industry?'"
She relayed stories then of living under an entirely new -- and often bizarre -- microscope. Like the snarky time Vanity Fair posted a photo of her wearing a traditional barrister's wig next to George Washington and asked Who Wore It Best?
"Fortunately, I won ... purely on the basis that I have better teeth," she joked.
She says scrap the 10 year plan.
Clooney spent the spring as a visiting law professor at Colombia School of Law in New York. Her best advice to students: "Be true to yourself and do it your way."
At 38, Clooney's professional accomplishments eclipse what many hope to achieve in entire lifetimes. She says that sometimes colors the way students see her. "They'll say, 'now that you know where you've ended up..." she mused, with an expression of bewilderment. "I feel like I'm still on the journey..."
But, that's not to say she doesn't share similar starry-eyed admiration for her own role models, particularly Sonia Sotomayor, for whom Clooney worked as a student clerk when the justice was on the U.S. Court of Appeals.
"She is one of the best, most amazing women I've gotten to watch," Clooney said. "I hadn't seen her for many years, but we spoke last year about my students talking about where I 'ended up.' I told her, 'Yes, Justice, but your story does end with ... 'And, now I'm on the Supreme Court..."
Dallas has welcomed her with a warm reception, very warm.
"I made a strategic error in only being here 24 hours," she said. "Someone definitely invited me to a wedding earlier..."
She won't apologize for her passions.
When asked by Slater if being a woman created a more emotional connection to her work, Clooney said, "I don't think it's because I'm a woman. People who are passionate are good at what they do. These emotions are a driving force, and I don't think women should apologize for them anymore than a man should."
There has been a defining moment for her work.
When she was 24, she assisted Judge Patrick Robinson on trial against former president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, who was accused of war crimes and genocide.
"It showed that no one is above the law, and since then, other heads of state have been brought to trial," she said. "It set a new stage of international justice that hadn't been met in 50 years."
Her most dangerous work has been "worth it."
Clooney discussed cases that took her on immensely dangerous journeys throughout highly insecure areas that required immense safety measures, but she says it is the "extraordinary survivors" there that drive her work.
"Around 2005, I was in Beirut in a compound with four check points and at the fourth, there was a massive crater the guard could climb into to inspect the undercarriage of vehicles for bombs," she said, describing one of the most treacherous. "I was there for my 30th birthday and people would ask, 'So, you left a job in a New York ... in a law office ... for this?'"
What's a typical day like, and what's on her nightstand?
Traveling frequently for work, Clooney said being self-employed and being able to prepare cases wherever she is while meeting clients provides needed flexibility, but it also means there's little "normalcy" to her life. At home, she takes pleasure in simplicity, walking her dogs by the river in London or taking part in group Skype sessions with her family members, who live all over the world. If there is one constant to her days, it is that she is always reading.
When asked by Slater what's on her nightstand, Clooney laughed and responded, "The Azerbaijani tax code."
"We are consumed by news in my household, both my parents' and my marital one," she added.
Despite her busy schedule, family remains a top priority.
Her husband, Academy Award winning actor George Clooney, is from Lexington, Kentucky, and she said the couple visits his family there when they can.
"After the first time visiting, when I left, I felt like the whole town was my in-laws," she joked.
As for her own family, she recalled that, when she was first engaged she told her mother over Skype how they were planning to only invite 100 people total to the ceremony. "I have many, many cousins, and I remember my mom leaning into the camera and saying, 'Oh, that's never going to happen.'"
Ultimately, they kept the ceremony small and celebrated afterward with a larger party thrown by her parents that included, "everyone we'd never met," she joked.
On how she handles unwanted attention:
"I'm usually the last person to know; I don't usually follow those publications, and I know not to read the comments," she said. But, she sees a silver lining: Now that she's thrust into the spotlight, so are her causes and her fight for human rights, and those things are reaching a new audience.
"Knowledge can be empowering," she said.