Legal Empowerment

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With a rising tide of authoritarianism, and more than 5 billion people understood to be living outside the protection of the law, grassroots movements for justice are more important than ever. Legal empowerment, a growing field of human rights practice, scholarship, and education, empowers affected communities to use the law to find solutions to their justice problems. Legal empowerment takes many forms, from community paralegal programs, to mediation and dispute resolution initiatives, public-financed legal aid services, and law and organizing strategies that marry impact litigation with broad mobilization efforts.

The Bernstein Institute is the only U.S. legal academic center dedicated to advancing research, education, and advocacy on legal empowerment in the United States and globally. We teach law students to act as allies instead of “experts,” and partner with grassroots activists, lawyers, and scholars to think collectively about how to use the law to address structural injustice. A central tenet of the work is the shifting power - with lawyers, organizers, and communities working together to expand access to justice, keeping the community in the lead in defining the justice they seek.


We support and learn from our grassroots partners as they build the power, dignity, and knowledge of impacted communities. We currently have projects in the field of immigration and criminal justice and help to identify, analyze, and work to dismantle legal and regulatory obstacles to legal empowerment; prepare law students to play the role of community partners; and bring research methods to bear on efforts to measure, assess, and evaluate the change our partners are making.

  • The Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative (JLI) aims to re-conceptualize the role of jailhouse lawyers as agents of empowerment. JLI is a national project of the Legal Empowerment Advocacy Hub and is supported by the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights. JLI advocates for the legal empowerment of current and former jailhouse lawyers and law clerks - a process central to ending the cycle of incarceration and enabling communities to obtain freedom from the inside out. JLI targets outcomes in both the carceral and postcarceral settings. We advocate for jailhouse lawyers to have access to all the necessary legal materials needed to adequately research legal questions and the knowledge and skills required to be an effective legal advocate for themselves and the people they are incarcerated with. We also seek to create opportunities for former jailhouse lawyers to apply their skills upon release. This includes being able to leverage their skills for individual educational or employment opportunities, as well as bringing their knowledge of the law and justice system to their communities to help break the cycle of incarceration. JLI is working in partnership with the Prison Reform and Education Project (PREP)'s Prison Teaching Project, to strengthen the legal education curriculum offered to people incarcerated in New York state prisons.  
  • The Immigration Justice Empowerment Project, born out of our post-conference UNHCR roundtable, which brought together community based organizations and agencies from around the country who engage in innovative legal empowerment methods within the asylum context. The project, in collaboration with NYU Law's Global Justice Clinic and funded by the UNHCR, documents these important models and facilitates networking and sharing of best practices. One result of this project is, an accessible, interactive website that houses information on the respective models, narrative testimonials from affected communities, resources, and a timeline of key immigration policies and laws with a focus on the human rights violations.
  • 2018's conference, Reimagining Justice: Realizing Human Rights through Legal Empowermentwhich brought together leading human rights activists, lawyers, and scholars from over 25 countries, including Bangladesh, China, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Kenya, Pakistan, South Africa, and the United States to assess the state of the legal empowerment field, identify key research and methodological opportunities, and build a stronger global movement for grassroots justice. Speakers shared strategies on using legal empowerment to address some of the most urgent issues of our time - from climate change to the refugee crisis, immigration, mass incarceration, and attacks on women and LGBTQI communities.
  • Co-convening the Legal Empowerment Leadership Course, a five day program dedicated to nurturing knowledge, methodology, and empirical research on legal empowerment with practitioners and academics from all over the globe. A faculty of respected practitioners and academics lead course participants in an in-depth exploration of key themes, including the history of the global movement for legal empowerment, the intersection of legal empowerment and community organizing, and the role of grassroots legal advocates in realizing systemic change or ensuring effective service delivery. The course is a collaboration between the CEU’s School of Public Policy (SPP), Open Society Justice Initiative, Namati, and the Bernstein Institute.
  • Investing in the next generation of human rights lawyers through the placement of a Masiyiwa-Bernstein fellow at a legal empowerment organization.
  • Educational programs for the Law School and broader community on the importance of community-driven justice strategies to advance human rights.


The Institute is also involved in a number of projects and learning initiatives aimed at co-creating knowledge about the field of legal empowerment. This includes launching a new immersive learning collaboration called the Legal Empowerment Learning Lab and working with colleagues around the world to articulate a Learning Agenda for the legal empowerment community.

  • A Participatory Empowerment Evaluation Project in partnership with New Sanctuary Coalition to collectively assess the impacts of their legal empowerment programs. New Sanctuary Coalition is an immigrant-led organization that supports families through the immigration process by empowering immigrants to know and defend their rights, coordinating a network of volunteers who accompany immigrants to court, providing intake support at a weekly pro-se clinic, and offering emotional and logistical support. The project, in collaboration with NYU Law's Global Justice Clinic and funded by the UNHCR, aims to evaluate the efficacy of New Sanctuary Coalition's work, with a goal of producing literature highlighting the impact of legal empowerment methods used by the organization to address justice barriers within the U.S. immigration system.
  • Support the building of a collective learning agenda for the field in partnership with Namati. While there are a number of studies documenting the impact of legal empowerment efforts, important gaps remain. More investigation is needed to build a broader evidence base and identify best practices emerging from experimentation across the field.