More than 1,000 practicing and prospective “rebellious lawyers” — those motivated by desires to facilitate social changes — convened at an eponymous Yale Law School conference over the weekend.
The annual public interest conference saw a record turnout in its 23rd year. Lawyers, students and community activists from across the globe flocked to New Haven to exchange ideas and build connections. About 30 panels and breakout sessions brought together experts and enthusiasts in the fields of indigenous rights, disability justice, gender-based violence and other points of intersection for social change and law.
“You need to internalize that ‘law’ is not going to protect the people, only movement and collective action can protect,” said Purvi Shah, co-founder of “Law For Black Lives,” a national network of lawyers of color committed to strengthening the black liberation movement. Having attended RebLaw while a law student at University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, Shah came back this year to give the closing keynote speech.
Wally Hilke LAW ’18, one of the RebLaw directors, said the concept of rebellious lawyering entails a re-imagination of the day-to-day legal practices to shatter the hierarchies of race, gender, class and expertise.
He added that compared to traditional career paths of clerking for judges, joining large firms and doing corporate work, a legal career in the public interest has a trajectory that is less clearly carved out, adding that the conference provided a great networking opportunity.
“It’s a celebration. It’s an affirmation,” Hilke said. “There is solidarity and joy and all being together under one roof.”
Pamela Palmater, a lawyer and an advocate for indigenous people, delivered the opening remarks to a full house on Friday. Greeted by periodic applause and finger-snapping, Palmater encouraged the audience to venture beyond the comfort zone of the prestige associated with the legal profession.
“Law is action. It’s not just debate in the court; it’s asserted and defended on the ground,” she said.
Shah, in her closing address, recalled memories of feeling “horrified” in law school when she found out that the entire foundation of property law was based on what she called a “genocide” of the indigenous people. She stressed that law is a “tool of oppression” which makes legal revolutions impossible, adding that the only thing law practitioners can do to generate social change is to defend the activists so that they can resist.
Shah also commended the Law School’s tradition of engaging in the public sector, especially applauding Law School Dean Robert Post’s LAW ’77 Boston Globe op-ed co-written with his Harvard counterpart Martha Minow LAW ’79. The two deans denounced Trump’s attacks on the judiciary branch and called for action to preserve the rule of law.
Jaribu Hill, founder of the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights and moderator for the panel “Financing Criminal Justice,” said coming to RebLaw and seeing young faces interested in public interest legal work “re-energized” her.
DeAnna Baumle, a third-year student at Fordham Law School, returned to New Haven after RebLaw inspired her two years ago during her first visit. Baumle described the conference as a culmination of other grassroots movements and similarly themed conferences.
“The fact that this exists for lawyers and law students is in itself a statement,” Baumle said.
Brittany Neihardt, a senior at Georgetown University and a first-time participant of RebLaw, said she was amazed by the number of people who showed up to the conference, adding that she has exchanged business cards and made great contacts over the two-day conference.
Neihardt said the things she learned from the panel on using narrative as a tool against mass incarceration are directly applicable to a prison reform project she is working on.
In addition to academics, the conference drew many local residents. Anderson Curtis,who has been imprisoned and is now a mentor for men on parole in a criminal justice agency, said he attended the conference to learn how to help other people using advocacy.
RebLaw is inspired by Gerald Lopez’s 1992 book “Rebellious Lawyering.”