“Movement lawyering – who knows about it?,” asked co-founder of the Community Justice Project (CJP), Meena Jagannath, with a look of little expectation. A look that was well-warranted, as the people making up this public service round table stared back at her blankly.
The room was silent, except for the occasional *crunch* from the communal bag of salt and vinegar chips as we all waited for her to answer the almost-rhetorical question. This silence that served as an indication of the general lack of visibility and awareness of this line of work, even within a network of affiliated community partners.
Over the next hour and a half, Meena and other attorneys would each explain what the term “movement lawyering” meant to them and how the practice plays out at CJP in the context of local politics. This would prove to provide a wealth of knowledge (at least, for an uninformed patron such as myself) for anyone interested in pursuing a career in law – all in just under 90 minutes.
Law schools refer to movement lawyering as a type of litigation that follows the “community lawyering model.” The Webster dictionary defines it flatly as an “alternative model of public interest advocacy focused on building the power of non-elite constituencies through integrated legal and political strategies.” My own readers’ digest definition would suggest that it’s the practice of representing vulnerable populations in an effort to support contemporary social movements and promote politically progressive policy in its wake.
However, it was the explanations of CPJ’s summer law clerks that brought the term’s meaning, and my understanding of it, to life. While the following quotes are not exact, they embody my grasp on the theses of each speaker; nuggets of knowledge that I believe reflect a number of the core characteristics of this highly interdisciplinary line of public service/legal work:
“Too often, law school teaches us to think that there are two sides of a legal conflict. When you’re working with social movements, this is almost never the case. You’re dealing with entire systems and with those systems come with their own intricacies. Intricacies that you will never understand unless you speak to the people living the trauma.”
“We work in contradiction. We are using our ability to litigate to serve the very populations that our law and justice systems are precisely designed against.”
“We constantly have to practice when and where to take on and off the ‘lawyer hat.’ We are faced with constant decisions on how to relate to these populations, on how to build trust, meanwhile advocating and providing the expertise needed.”
“You cannot forget that trust is built through open and ongoing dialogue with the affected individuals and communities.”
“We must stay passionate and identify tools that help us stay focused in order to keep our motivation streamlined when we are facing a multitude of issues.”
“I came in with a desire, that seemed humble at the time, to figure out how to use the privilege I was granted (referring their education, positioning as a lawyer, etc) to come up with the best solutions for these underserved populations. But what I ultimately came to understand is that most of the time, it is the client themselves who holds the greatest understanding of their case and consequentially has the greatest knowledge and incentive to develop the best-suited solution. This is because they are the ones that have lived the trauma you are seeking to fix – not you.”
Following the meeting, I questioned why the lessons above resonated with me so profoundly. I found myself sitting down to write a personal journal entry where I would assess how I have approached my work at Legal Services of Great Miami thus far. In specific response to the final quote above, I expressed a need to a step back from my work. To acknowledge and unpack my personal privilege. To humble myself. I was thinking about law in a deeper way. So what made this experience different?
I soon realized that it was the fact that for once since the beginning of my personal experience pursuing my interest in law, the legal theory – the way of thinking about and approaching law – was humanized. It was stripped of the elite scholarly discourse that so often accompanies the way it is talked about in classrooms, books, society. It was real, it was proximate, and it acknowledged and uplifted the communities that it directly impacts. It was not just some two-person scenario in a textbook, but we were talking about the way that law is lived.
I believe movement lawyering, itself, strongly embodies this sense of humanity. It does so by operating through a lens that pays mind to the individual and recognizes the power for change that can be effected through the practice and implementation of the laws that influence how we live. And this is a lens on litigation that I believe would be of value to any lawyer in any area of law. Because, ultimately, we must understand it’s called “the practice of law” for a reason – we never master it. So, if our metrics for greatness and success are supporting underserved populations and a progressive political agenda, why not entertain these practices of thinking deeply, maintaining a sense of awareness for a client base, and checking one’s privilege in an effort to move closer to these goals?
Just some thoughts. For now, I’ll continue being a public service patron, absorbing invaluable knowledge from the experts, as I continue to eat these salt and vinegar chips.