In 1770, John Adams risked serious damage to his career and reputation by agreeing to defend the British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre. To Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Adams is the model of a rebellious lawyer.
With Dees serving as the keynote speaker, the Yale Law School’s ninth annual Rebellious Lawyering Conference attracted over 430 participants from across the nation this weekend. The law students came together for a series of workshops, panel discussions and speeches on progressive law, legislation and activism. By design, the conference did not focus on a specific issue. Topics included law school recruiting by the military’s Judge Advocate General, the environment, animal cruelty, law school faculty diversity, the death penalty, lobbying, international law, child advocacy and feminism.
“It’s the synergy between lawyers, activists, and clients that represents the spirit of rebellious lawyering,” said visiting Law School professor Steven Gunn LAW ’95, who was a member of the panel on housing and economic justice.
Despite the weekend’s rain, the conference achieved its highest attendance ever, said conference co-director Alexandra Block LAW ’04. Attendees came from as far away as Stanford University and the University of Utah to meet with other law students and learn about social change, Block said.
“It was really inspiring, the number of people who made a long trip out to New Haven,” Block said.
Law School Dean Anthony Kronman said the conference is representative of the attitude of the Law School, combining the typically diligent study of the law with a rebellious spirit.
“I’m very proud of the conference,” Kronman said. “The students who helped organize it did a masterful job attracting first rate speakers.”
In the conference’s opening speech, Maria Blanco, national senior counsel for the Sacramento office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, discussed the increase in government power after Sept. 11, 2001, and attacked the effect on immigration policy.
“The setbacks have really been across the board,” Blanco said.
Blanco said many now see the word “immigrant” as synonymous with “terrorist.” She pointed to “Operation Tarmac,” in which federal officials investigate workers at airports and arrest people for using false Social Security numbers.
At the “Outlegislating” panel, homosexual and bisexual politicians discussed how their sexual orientations became public to their constituents. In addition, they spoke about building coalitions with both traditional progressive allies and with other, less obvious groups to achieve their political goals. All three members of the panel said they thought it was important to focus on other issues as well as subjects directly related to sexual orientation.
“There is not a single electoral district in this country in which you can get elected with just gay and lesbian votes,” former Minnesota state Senator Alan Spear said.
Willie Baptist and Joseph Bostic, two members of the housing and economic justice panel, spoke from direct experience about their difficulty in finding housing in New York City and Philadelphia. They and other panel members stressed the dichotomy between the cost of placing the homeless in temporary shelters and finding them permanent homes.
In his address, Dees said what he saw and heard at the conference made him feel hopeful about the upcoming generation of lawyers. He encouraged the law students gathered for the conference to continue to work for social justice through the law, whether or not they choose to join a public interest firm.
“The cases I remember and the clients I remember are those that paid me with a handshake,” Dees said.