The Lawyer's Baggage: Engaging the Oppressor Within.

AuthorO'Connor, Carolyn
PositionSpecial Issue on Human Rights Activists Engagement with Oppressors

For at least fifty years, lawyers have examined what professional role to play in movements to end oppression. First, lawyers criticized the impact litigator: ducking in and out of movements, the litigator represented a client to advance a cause. These lawyers could deliver a gut punch to an oppressive regime, yet winning a court case could defuse organizing power and lead to push-back. The lawyer, not the client or movement, was in charge. Then, criticism swung against the community lawyer seeking to empower marginalized people. That lawyer served individuals who were confronting systemic discrimination, going person by person to make a change. While the community or individual had more control over reform efforts, the lawyer was often seen as only serving the immediate issue, just holding the oppressive forces at bay.

Movement lawyers have since learned better ways to engage the oppressors. Movement lawyers are now, as Professor of Law Scott J. Cummings argues, collaborating more often with activist organizations. (1) In these collaborations, movement lawyers apply their skills to any number of activities: organizing, educating, and advocating for change to name a few. Collaboration and a broad skill-set are critical next steps in movement lawyering. In this new phase of movements, activists are looking for answers about what baggage keeps movements from confronting oppressive forces. Lawyers must own their own baggage: the tensions that remain inherent in movement lawyering.

A Choice Of Voices In A Movement

Like every lawyer, movement lawyers choose their clients. However, movement lawyers do not choose their clients based on market forces, like transactional lawyers, or due to need, as in direct service. Movement lawyers do not have a unifying theory of change for which clients in a movement need representation. To select clients, the movement lawyer makes a value-laden decision about which individual or organization is making the changes that the lawyer believes will benefit the overall movement.

In a perfect world, every voice that wished would be empowered by legal counsel and every activist would engage the oppressor in a constructive way. The real world is far messier. Many movements in the United States, at their core, are now often coordinated by well-organized, large-scale activist organizations. These organizations have the capacity and knowledge to direct a lawyer, engaging that lawyer in any variety of education, litigation...

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