In modern culture, attorneys and law firms are often cast in a negative light: either a joke’s punch line, or worse – as predators. In many instances the criticism may be well deserved. However, such a cynical view of the lawyer ignores the support the legal community has provided and continues to provide to social movements. Community lawyers can provide valuable support to communities and community organizations that organize to address serious structural inequities.
Community lawyering has been defined by legal academicians in many ways. Equal justice advocate and educator, Ellen Hemley, may have put it best when she wrote that the role of community lawyers is to “contribute their legal knowledge and skills to support initiatives that are identified by the community and enhance the community’s power.”
What does this mean? To my mind there are two views attorneys can take: 1) each individual client and case is a job, after which, the attorney is paid and the client goes on his or her way; or, 2) each individual is part of a greater community that may suffer greater harm or have greater concerns than just an isolated incident. One view puts out fires, while allowing the lawyer to be paid. The other view empowers communities who want support to address why the fire started in the first place.
Waltzer Wiygul & Garside’s home page states that it is a “firm borne of idealism and the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s.” A civil rights struggle that was given much support by social justice fighters and attorneys who, working hand in hand with community, were able to begin dismantling the tragedy of Plessy v. Ferguson and were able to achieve the substantial, albeit insufficient, victory of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
WWG continues this legacy of working together with people to address the needs of those communities of which it is a part. We seek to contribute our legal knowledge and skills to support community initiatives that will have lasting, meaningful and positive impacts on our communities. It is important for attorneys to know that our role goes beyond settling one case, it is to “enhance the community’s power.”
In seeking a guiding principal for lawyers, and a standard for the public to hold us to, perhaps it is best to listen to the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“We’ve got to understand people, first, and then analyze their problems. If we really pay attention to those we want to help; if we listen to them; if we let them tell us about themselves—how they live, what they want out of life— we’ll be on much more solid ground when we start planning “our action,” “our programs,” than if we march ahead, to our own music, and treat them as if they’re only meant to pay attention to us, anyway.”
Mauricio Sierra, Esq.