Becoming a Community Lawyer

by ursavoice

Carol Sobel

Let me start with a bit of my rather non-traditional legal background. As a true child of the 60s, I am a graduate of the first class at the Peoples College of Law (“PCL”), formed by several progressive bar associations as a school whose only purpose was to train community lawyers.

The faculty members at PCL were the most extraordinary civil rights lawyers in Los Angeles at the time, working at the ACLU, Legal Aid, the Bar Sinister legal collective, and other public interest law offices. The entire faculty had spent their professional careers doing precisely what I wanted to do: fight injustice.

While I took a very unconventional path to law school, my first law job was as an attorney with the ACLU for twenty years. To say I was terrified when I started to practice law is an understatement. As I waited for my case to be called at my very first court appearance, I watched several business attorneys unsuccessfully make excuses about why they had failed to litigate their clients’ cases properly. After about 30 minutes of watching these lawyers, I turned to my colleague and said, “I can do this.” I knew I could provide better representation to my clients because I cared deeply about their cases.

As attorneys, we have the opportunity and obligation to use our skills to give voice to individuals who suffer far greater injustices than a business dispute, but cannot afford a lawyer. Look at what you can accomplish armed with the law, your exceptional intellect, creativity, and an unflagging commitment to redressing injustice: you can stop sweatshops and human trafficking; you can ensure that each student has textbooks and a place to sit at school; you can halt predatory home loan practices; you can protect homeless individuals from police harassment; you can end indefinite detentions; you can block executions in the name of the state; and you can right a wrongful conviction. You can make a difference in people’s lives.

Sustaining a career as a public-interest lawyer will not always be easy. You will not make as much money as your colleagues who work at large firms, but you already know that. You have to be able to handle pandemonium, work with far fewer resources than your colleagues will have at traditional firms, and deal with the reality that you are operating in a social and judicial construct that favors the other side. But when you win—and more importantly— when your client wins, it is exhilarating.

As a public-interest lawyer, you need to be more prepared than your opponent is. Your opponents will have far more resources, plus a desire to win just for the sake of winning. But you have something that they do not have. You want to win for the sake of justice for your clients and that is an incalculable force.

It may seem sometimes—or even most times—as if you are swimming upstream against an incredibly strong repressive current. Over the past three decades, I have had more of those moments than I care to recall. But I have remained anchored by the realization that the challenges I face as a community lawyer are nothing compared to those of the individuals and organizations I represent. In Los Angeles, there is also a large and supportive group of attorneys who work at public interest firms, private civil rights law firms, and a much larger group of colleagues who do individual justice work with Legal Aid and the federal and state offices of the Public Defender. So, even though I am a solo practitioner, I am always part of a generous and talented team in this community.

One last piece of advice. When I left the ACLU and entered into private practice, I transitioned from being a civil rights/civil liberties lawyer to being a community lawyer. At the ACLU, my focus was more on issues. As a community lawyer, my focus is more on individuals. I have had to learn to listen to my clients and take direction from them. We work together: they lead and I follow with my briefcase. This has taken some “reeducation” on my part. As a person of privilege, my first instinct is often to say I can call some public official to discuss a problem. But as my clients have taught me and still have to remind me, it is about the empowerment of the community that will be there long after I leave, and not the use of influence derived from my privilege.

I look forward to becoming a better community lawyer. Frankly, I could not imagine doing anything else. While the fight is hard and long, and often seems impossible, I promise you it is worth it and the reward is great.