Student Commentary

Liberty and Justice: Moving from Some to All

Cassie Grainge, Liz Schultz, Larry Krasner, Waqar Rehman, Dan Flack, and Randi Guzaly

When the Democratic National Convention was in Philadelphia, I was interning during my 1L summer at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. ACLU-PA had sent the ACLU of Ohio a care package to survive the Republican National Convention, so ACLU-OH returned the favor. It contained the following magnet:

I snagged it—it remains on my fridge.

Like many of us, I grew up pledging allegiance to a flag that is supposed to represent ideals of liberty and justice for all. I decided to go to law school after I began to recognize the extent of our generational failure to achieve those ideals. One barrier in moving toward justice for all is the desperate lack of legal representation for those who cannot afford justice. Choosing public interest law is typically not a wise financial decision; I have had the privilege of being able to do so, knowing my first salary will be less than half that of some of my classmates, and even less than my first teaching salary was ten years ago. Temple Law gave me the privilege of making that decision with the offer of a spot in its tremendously supportive Rubin-Presser Social Justice Fellowship program.

One requirement of the Rubin-Presser Social Justice program is that each Fellow completes a capstone project. I chose to use my project to create an opportunity for social justice-oriented law students in Philadelphia to connect with each other. Despite there being five other law schools within 20 miles, I have found opportunities to connect with future colleagues relatively rare. There is a great conference at Yale Law each year called RebLaw—the Rebellious Lawyering conference—that does just that. But only a handful of students go from the Philly area each year. So, I decided that we should plan a local conference to bring together students from area law schools and highlight the great work local practitioners are doing to expand access to justice.

I put together a committee of law students and law school professionals that grew to include dozens of people, including Cassie Grainge from Drexel, Waqar Rehman from Villanova, Randi Guszaly from Widener, and Rachel Leffel and TJ Denley from Temple. With a theme of rebellious lawyering in mind, at the top of our list of dream keynote speakers was Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s new District Attorney who dedicated his career to civil rights and criminal defense then ran to become the city’s top prosecutor. He became very popular after his landslide win, so we were astounded when less than a month later he accepted our invitation. I campaigned for him, so it was a tremendous honor to introduce him as our keynote.

Over winter break, the committee met to decide which sessions we would offer. We finally decided on a name we felt embodied the purpose behind the conference — Liberty and Justice: Moving from Some to All. We decided to offer six sessions: Women in the Law, Crimmigration, Trauma in Our Streets and Systems, Civil Rights Litigation, Participatory Defense, and Leading Social Change. We managed to convince a roster of 19 incredible speakers to join us, including Lauren Fine (Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project), Nilam Sanghvi (Legal Director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project), Golnaz Fakhimi (ACLU of Pennsylvania), David Rudovsky (Co-Founder of Kairys Rudovsky Messing Feinberg & Lin), the Hon. Jane Roth (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit), and Nina C. Spizer (Chief of the Trial Unit, Federal Community Defender). One speaker, Lee Merritt (TLAW ’12), was ranked No. 8 last year on The Root 100—above Beyoncé and Colin Kaepernick.

Each step of the way, we were met with doubt about whether we would succeed. Would we be able to pull off a full-day conference in three months, would we get Larry to give the keynote, would we be able to handle moving it up six weeks, would we qualify for offering CLE credits, would people even show up? At one point we were told it would be a “miracle” if we got 100 people to attend. We got 140.

We worked together. We leaned on our networks, and we relied on the experts. We refused to accept “no” for an answer. All of these are advocacy skills that will benefit our clients when we become lawyers. We also learned the power of working with the bar association—Tara Phoenix saved us on more than one occasion as unexpected challenges arose. We highlighted the important work being done in Philadelphia that we hope to emulate one day soon, from our speakers, to our caterer Ready Willing and Able, which works to break the cycles of homelessness, addiction, and recidivism, to the coffee shop where the committee met, Quaker City Coffee, which focuses on job creation for formerly incarcerated individuals. We made thoughtful choices to walk the talk, and laid the groundwork for future public interest students to take this project further in the coming years. I am thrilled that there is already talk of keynote speakers for next year.

As I navigated a period of immense pressure that included a moot court competition in North Carolina, client hearings, a Student Bar Association budget that finally passed the day of the conference, and postgrad applications and interviews, the experience of planning the conference reminded me of how fun law school can be. (Emphasis on CAN be!) That has been particularly true at Temple Law, a school with a deeply-rooted sense of justice, a vibrant public interest scene, and an incredible, engaged student body.

Cassie read an Angela Davis quote at the close of the conference: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” Mike Lee, interim director of legislation for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and co-founder of Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity and panelist, encouraged: “Don’t wait.”

It has been an incredible journey to become a lawyer in the city where notions of liberty and justice were debated by rich white men who thought they could define the limits of “We the People.” I am eager to join those who continue to redefine those limits.

For more information on the event, see page 14 of the Philadelphia Bar Reporter.

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