Category Archives: Legal Profession

Advocacy and the Rule of Law

As you know if you follow this blog, I have been in Beijing marking the 15th anniversary of the Beasley School of Law’s Rule of Law program in China. I’ve posted some thoughts about that event here, and even though the commencement exercises have concluded I find myself still thinking about some of the ideas they have inspired.  In particular, I find my thoughts returning to the rule of law as the organizing principle for our American system of values, and to the role of advocacy in making that system work.

I think that the best way to illuminate how advocacy makes our system work is to look at those times when the system has failed us. Take, for example, the era of Jim Crow in the American South. In last month’s Kolsby Lecture, Chilton Davis Varner shared some powerful reflections on how the law became a tool for dehumanization and political oppression during that time. Sanctioned inequality under the guise of “separate but equal” delegitimized the rule of law itself. One result, according to Varner, was a breach of trust in a justice system that had clearly failed not just the people it oppressed, but all of us.

What dismantled Jim Crow and began to restore trust in the rule of law was the passion and perseverance of a handful of lawyers and judges who became, in Varner’s words, “problem-solvers” who were “born to do the most unpleasant jobs for all of us.” We might also call them advocates. This small group of men and women understood that in order to restore trust in the rule of law, they had to successfully defend not just their clients’ interests, but their clients’ humanity, to a majority whose prosperity and comfort depended on denying it. But even that was not the end of their labors, for they also had to rehabilitate the system itself and regain the trust of those who had been injured by it. They used the tools of their profession – procedure, logic, persuasion and, ultimately, passion – to repair a broken system and to restore faith in its ability to serve us all.

One of the best parts of Varner’s remarks, for me at least, was that so many of our students had (and took) the opportunity to hear them. The need for advocates is no less pressing today than it was a half century ago. Not every lawyer can do civil rights work, to be sure: but every lawyer can work so that her actions have not just consequences, but meaning. The rule of law depends on lawyers who are, in Varner’s words, the “keepers of their own professionalism” – who see themselves as advocates in this fundamental sense.

I believe that the rule of law as an idea and as a system of values is one of the best, most powerful tools we have for creating and sustaining just, prosperous societies. I believe also that for it to remain so, those of us privileged to serve in this profession must be prepared to be advocates not just for our clients, but for the rule of law itself. Whether in Beijing, Philadelphia, or points in between, advocacy in service to this ideal is one of our best hopes for creating a more perfect world.

The 2014 MacArthur Awards

I happened to notice while scanning the list of MacArthur Award recipients that three of the 21 honorees were lawyers – Mary Bonauto, a civil rights lawyer credited with building the case against DOMA; Sarah Deer, a law professor working on legislation that empowers tribal nations to protect women from domestic and sexual violence; and Jonathan Rapping, a criminal lawyer whose organization, Gideon’s Promise, provides coaching, training, and professional development to public defenders in an effort to address the problem of inadequate representation for indigent defendants.

I offer this observation because as we continue to wrestle with the challenges facing both legal education and the profession, it’s important to remember that two things remain true: first, that we will always need talented, passionate lawyers; and second, that a good legal education delivers an extraordinary opportunity to creative, passionate people who want to change the world.

Kids for Cash

Last night I had the opportunity to attend the screening of Kids for Cash, a documentary about two judges in Luzerne County serving lengthy sentences for receipt of cash in connection with sentencing children to detention (though one of the judges continues to proclaim his innocence – you’ve really got to watch this film).  The screening was very well attended, and I was happy to see so many “Temple” people there – alumni like Abe and Sherri Reich and Judge Phyllis Beck, faculty like Rick Greenstein and Lou Natali, and friends like Stephen and Sandy Sheller.  It was wonderful to see two of our alumni, Marsha Levick and Bob Schwartz, co-founders of the Juvenile Law Center, featured for their prominent role in shining a light on this injustice (and hailed as the “heroes” of the film in this Inquirer review).

Kids for Cash has a lot to say to every person learning, teaching, and practicing law today.  I hope you’ll see it and let it speak to you.  Let it remind you why you went to law school in the first place – because you knew that with the right skills, education, and training, you could change the world.  You were right, and you still are.  Let it help you connect with who you were when you first chose law as a profession (or perhaps when it first chose you).  What was the vision of justice that inspired you at that time?  I hope the movie rekindles, or perhaps reaffirms, that vision for you.

I also hope the movie inspires you to listen when that voice inside tells you that something feels wrong.  Trust that instinct, and follow it.  Look carefully and with an open mind, and when you do find injustice, don’t be afraid to shine a light on it.  And be persistent.  Injustice doesn’t often give up easily.  In fact, the work is likely to be as daunting and difficult as the outcome is rewarding.  Marsha, Bob, and their colleagues found their persistence rewarded when thousands of children had unfair convictions expunged from their records.  What could be more rewarding than that?

Go see Kids for Cash, which opens in select theaters this Friday, and then ask yourself: where will you shine your light?

Impactful

Anne Curzan, a linguist at the University of Michigan, has written a wonderful blog post about one of my favorite non-words: impactful.  If you are at all interested in the evolution of our language, I encourage you to read it for its thoughtfulness and insight.

Why do I like “impactful?” In a nutshell, I think it captures an essential element of what we strive for at Temple Law School.  We’ve challenged our students to be people who solve problems, right wrongs, and get things done.  We want them to be innovators whose creativity changes outcomes. We want them to be entrepreneurs willing to step into the gap when they see a need and meet it with confidence and skill. We want them to do work that engages, inspires, and changes them.  We want them to be impactful.

From what I can see, our students feel the same way.  They don’t wait for graduation or practice to make their mark – they jump in when they see a need and meet it with creativity, persistence, and confidence.  Whether it’s partnering with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to create a youth court in one of the city’s most impoverished high schools, proposing immigration and labor law reforms that garner national attention, or building medical-legal partnerships that place lawyers onsite in medical settings where they can directly intervene when adverse conditions contribute to poor health outcomes, Temple students are impactful, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.

I will add a caveat here that as a stickler on matters of grammar and language, I will not be using “impactful” in my own writing anytime soon.  I think that reasonable minds can disagree about whether it has yet earned a place in the lexicon.  But I also think that the concept it conveys is both powerful and necessary, and that an ethic of “impactfulness” could bring much needed energy to our profession.  We will continue to seek and support that energy within our Temple Law School community , and to teach our students to seek and support it in their own lives and practices. With any luck, by the time the language catches up with them, they will have become the very definition of “impactful.”