Alumna of the Month for January 2010

Danielle J. Lipow ’99

Director, Juvenile Justice Policy Group, Southern Poverty Law Center

Danielle Lipow ’99, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Juvenile Justice Policy Group, knows the job she holds is very different today than it was a generation or two ago. Attorneys engaged in social justice work in the 1960s and 1970s tended to fight cases exclusively in the courtroom. These days, there’s a lot more to it. “It’s almost never enough to have a strategy that relies entirely on litigation,” she says.

Instead, lawyers must use a variety of tools–from legislative advocacy and media campaigning to community organizing and public policy work–to get the job done. It’s this kind of of multidisciplinary approach to law that increasingly is required of lawyers practicing social justice work, Ms. Lipow asserts. “Most successful organizations now embrace a campaign philosophy,” says Ms. Lipow, a former ballet dancer who chose to study pre-law at the University of Chicago after injuries ended her dancing career. “Litigation is one tool, but lawyers also need to master and use other tools.”

NYU Law’s commitment to public interest law made the school an attractive destination for Ms. Lipow, who knew at the outset that she wanted to work in the social justice arena. “It’s clear at NYU Law that public interest isn’t the stepchild of legal careers,” she says.

NYU Law also helped Ms. Lipow broaden her perspective and see the role that litigation could play in larger movements. Professors including Derrick Bell, who taught Ms. Lipow constitutional law, and Judith Resnik ’75, a visiting professor from Yale Law School who taught civil procedure, used cases to build a story told over an entire semester, allowing students to not only see the principles underlying individual cases, but also to see the cases as part of a broader social justice movement. “They taught the stories behind the legal principles, and they did it in a very organized and systematic way,” she says.

Ms. Lipow pursued a career in public interest law after leaving NYU Law. She first joined Washington, DC law firm Hogan & Hartson as an associate in the firm’s community services department. In 2001, Ms. Lipow moved to the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center as a law fellow and was subsequently promoted to a permanent position as a staff attorney. While at the center, she has worked on a broad range of civil liberties and civil rights cases, from a high-profile suit to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments that was displayed inside the Alabama Supreme Court building to class actions challenging conditions in juvenile prisons in Louisiana and Mississippi.

In her role as director of the SPLC’s Juvenile Justice Policy Group, which concentrates on Alabama and Florida while providing support to advocates in other states, Ms. Lipow works closely with partners including legal aid organizations, state leaders, and nonprofit organizations to push reform of states’ juvenile justice systems. “There’s no litigation,” she says. “It’s a purely collaborative approach.”

That approach has gotten results: The number of children in Alabama’s juvenile jails and prisons has dropped by half since the Juvenile Justice Policy Group began working with stakeholders in the state, says Ms. Lipow. The group also spearheaded a public relations campaign to support legislation to create a new juvenile justice act for the state; the new law passed in 2008.

Ms. Lipow says her passion for juvenile justice issues has strengthened considerably since she joined SPLC eight years ago. And while she doesn’t regret the time she spent earlier in her career working on First Amendment cases or civil liberties issues, she finds her work on juvenile justice reform more rewarding than any of her other legal work. “These things are very personal,” she says. “No matter how noble and selfless the cause, there’s always an element of personal interest that draws you from one thing to another. For me, it’s children caught up in the juvenile justice system.”