The NYU Law Forum for February 24 prompted three lawyers to consider “Lessons for Activists: What Law School Didn’t Teach Me (Or I Didn’t Stop to Learn).”

Vice Dean Barry Friedman said that he hadn’t actually thought of himself as an activist, but recognized that identification in hindsight, recalling that his first client was a death-row inmate in Alabama. He subsequently worked on impact litigation related to abortion rights and the First Amendment on behalf of the ACLU in Tennessee. Certain skill sets important to activism, he acknowledged, were not always taught in law school: enlisting others in your cause, developing empathy and the ability to bridge ideological differences, and looking for solutions other than litigation.

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Alina Das ’05, who coteaches the Immigrant Rights Clinic with Professor Nancy Morawetz ’81, considered whether there is really a divide between the average lawyer and an “activist,” adding, “A more interesting question is whether all lawyers are activists. Often, as immigrant rights attorneys, we’re put in the position of being called the activists... [with the assertion that] that we’re asking the law to be different somehow than what it is. Judges who adopt our positions are called judicial activists.... The law isn’t neutral. To argue in favor of ‘well-settled precedent’ is a choice that’s furthering an agenda.... It’s a much more rational, realistic place to start by acknowledging that both sides of the coin are really pushing an agenda.”

Robin Steinberg ’82, executive director of the Bronx Defenders, which provides personalized legal services to indigent clients, pointed to NYU Law’s clinical programs as the outlet for her advocacy-driven convictions in law school. “The faculty,” she said, “who were fabulous role models for all of us, taught us ways in which we could move forward our social and political agendas and at the same time learn how to be really, really, really good lawyers.”

One lesson she had to absorb over time, Steinberg said, was how to stifle her opinions about statements from the bench she deemed objectionable, at least when her client’s welfare was on the line: “In some ways the skills I learned in law school were ways to engage people that are as different in their worldview as somebody can be...yet still figure out how to engage them in ways that will convince them to actually do something that you want them to do.”

Posted on March 1, 2010

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