Legal symposium forges bonds among social policy activists

For more than 500 students hailing from all quarters of North America, this weekend offers a chance to put down the tax code textbooks and experience law on the wild side.

This Friday through Sunday, the Yale Law School is hosting the 12th annual Rebellious Lawyering Conference, a symposium aimed at creating bonds among aspiring policy activists and promoting discourse on opportunities for social change through legal action.

The event, the largest student-run law symposium in the country, will feature 22 panels of lawyers, judges and public policy leaders, parties and brown-bag lunches to inspire networking, as well as a keynote address by Deborah Peterson Small, the executive director of Break the Chains and an outspoken advocate for drug policy reform.

Since its founding in 1994, the conference’s logical home has always been Yale Law School, panelists and organizers said.

“The law is so often used to prop up the status quo, but the Rebellious Lawyering Conference helps us examine how we can use the law to promote fundamental and positive social change,” said Adam Lioz LAW ’07, who will moderate a panel on the possible civil rights violations surrounding the financial burden of running for political office in America. “Yale Law School attracts people who have social change as a priority coming in.”

But panel organizers said they take particular pride in exposing non-Yale students to a range of issues not typically taught at law schools.

“We’re interested in creating relationships with students at other schools where there is not as much institutional support for the topics that we’re covering,” conference co-director Annie Decker LAW ’07 said.

In addition to fostering interaction between law students, organizers said the conference — which is open free of charge to all Yale students — also seeks to educate participants on opportunities for activism abroad. The program includes panels on the “cosmopolitan” law of empowering developing countries, foreign and immigrant worker rights, and international war crimes allegedly committed by the administration of President George W. Bush ’68.

Luisa Cabal, the director of the international legal program at the Center for Reproductive Rights, who will be speaking on reproductive rights for women worldwide, said she hopes to inspire the many “leaders” who will emerge from the Law School to expand their legal focus beyond their own borders.

“I think [abortion] is a very timely issue with the new composition of the Supreme Court, but my key message is looking beyond U.S. borders, discussing what it is to do rebellious lawyering,” she said. “My experience is international, and I want to share that because it’s an experience less known at a law school.”

But domestic issues will still constitute much of the conference’s expected discourse.

Panelist and Georgetown Law professor James Forman Jr. LAW ’92, the son of famous civil rights activist James Forman Sr. and an outspoken advocate of education reform for juvenile delinquents in Washington, D.C., said the conference reflects the “fearlessness” of Yale Law students to work outside the traditional boundaries of the law. He said such thinking is essential in today’s United States.

“There are clearly a lot of major issues at stake right now in our country, but pressing domestic issues haven’t gone away,” he said. “We talk about these matters a little less right now in a world where we’re so consumed with international matters, but there are still people who are impoverished, … still people rapped in dysfunctional schools. These issues haven’t gone away since [Sept. 11].”

Christine Lehmann LAW ’01, a participant who is flying in today from New Orleans, said she looks forward to discussing the underfunded criminal justice system in her state. The system relies on parking tickets to pay for public defenders, a fact exposed by Hurricane Katrina, Lehmann said.

“The work that we do is very demanding, we don’t get paid a lot of money, and we’re down in the Deep South, where not necessarily a lot of [law graduates] come,” she said. “But the students who go to the Rebel Lawyering Conference are those who are interested in using their law degree in more unusual and more radical ways.”

Nelson Pavlosky, a Swarthmore student who attended last year’s conference with his group, Free Culture, said the conference — from which he said he still has condoms labeled with the word “rebel” — introduced him to social activists with whom he still stays in touch.

Yale Law School professor J.L. Pottenger Jr. said the program is a reflection of Yale’s having the “top public interest program of all the law schools.”

“I don’t think there’s another conference out there that’s quite like this,” Pottenger said.

Conference co-founder Steven Gunn LAW ’95, who worked with several law school colleagues more than a decade ago to launch the unprecedented endeavor, said the conference has “a real human feel.”

“I remember the very first keynote address by [former] Dean [Anthony] Kronman,” Gunn said. “He said, ‘This is the kind of conference that should happen at Yale Law School, and this is the kind of conference that should happen at Yale Law School every year from now on.’”

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