Call to Action: The Need for Community Lawyering

Authored by Allyssa Victory and Janani Ramachandran

“It is bad habit of mind, a form of power-worship, to assume that things must be as they are, that they will continue to be as they have been.” Kristian Williams

In the wake of our communities re-affirming the importance of Black and Asian solidarity, we write to offer a perspective as social justice attorneys, and to call our colleagues to action. 

The legal profession has historically played a key role in maintaining systemic inequality, but has also been used as a tool to fight for justice. In order to move further in the direction of the latter, legal advocates have a duty to align our work to uplift the voices and demands of those who don’t have a seat at the table. Lawyers shouldn’t lead these movements, but should assist the communities that do to reach their goals.

Attorneys have the unique power and privilege to bridge the gap between those who write the laws and their constituents. Our titles and bar membership earn us cultural respect – a respect that has been too-often abused to legitimize inequitable laws simply because of the fact that they are laws. The legal practice has been used to justify racism, poverty, state and interpersonal violence – as exemplified by our last president and his legal team. The laws of this country, molded by white supremacy and capitalism, offer no solution to some of our government’s most racist policies. There is no cause of action for 100,000+ Japanese Americans interned on U.S. soil, no cause of action for the generations of Africans enslaved over 400 years in America, and no cause of action against a U.S. President telling the public that a global pandemic is a “Chinavirus.” There is no cause of action for the present-day consequences of historically racist redlining policies and predatory lending schemes. We cannot simply accept the laws as written, and cannot rely on them to determine what keeps us safe. 

There is a difference between practicing law that meets the standards of our ethics codes, and lawyering that lives up to the values of our communities. Our moral compass must be guided by listening to what our community members say they want, not what we think they need.

The concept of “community lawyering” was born out of the recognition that the community needs its own counsel if law has the power to create and maintain societal injustices. Lawyers can defend communities by not only proclaiming why certain laws perpetuate inequalities, but actively using our privileges to work towards justice. One way to do this is to utilize the lenses of Critical Race Theory. Born out of the 1980’s, this school of thought created a framework to interrogate society and culture as they relate to race, law, and power.  Critical Race Theory offers “race- and identity- conscious strategies of advocacy and counseling fashioned from dissenting voices traditionally outside of law, legality, and legitimacy.”  Anthony Alfieri “Fidelity to the Community”, Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge (3rd Ed. 2013) at p. 748. 

How can I engage in community lawyering?

Any lawyer can contribute to the task of community lawyering, regardless of whether you work full-time in the public interest sector, dabble in pro bono projects, or simply associate with other lawyers in any positions of power. Taking action does not only mean engaging in the “glamorous” legal work of filing impact litigation, class actions, or appeals. It can be fulfilling the simple asks that community organizations benefit from.

Here are some ways to get started:

  1. Join forums that grassroots community organizations set up for dialogue around the issues. Attend town halls and public meetings with the purpose of listening and learning. If given permission, share the stories you hear of struggle and resilience in the decision-making rooms where you have a seat at the table.
  2. Be humble in organizing spaces. Don’t speak above the voices of community members, don’t patronize anyone’s opinions. Use the time to listen and learn, and only offer your legal knowledge when asked.
  3. Participate in public-facing tasks (if asked by organizers), such as calling and emailing your legislators or giving public comment at Council or Legislative hearings. Speak up and demand that your political leaders listen. Report incidents of hate crimes.  For example, report Anti-Asian incidents to stopaapithate.org
  4. Utilize any connections you have with public media to highlight issues and stories that organizers ask of you. Publicize go-fund-me pages and petitions on your social media platforms.  
  5. Encourage bar associations or forums of fellow lawyers to participate in non-legal public service. Pack lunches for mutual aid collectives, publicize existing food and clothing drives, distribute PPE to unhoused communities.
  6. Volunteer your time with pro bono legal clinics.
  7. Participate in protests and acts of civil disobedience. Consider getting trained as a Legal Observer, and safely cop-watch if you can.
  8. Think twice before telling your clients to call the police. Even though this is what the law frequently tells us is the only recourse for many emergency situations, reflect on whether this may be more harmful than helpful based on your client’s background, and explore alternatives.
  9. Encourage your organizations to think more critically about diversity in leadership. Who are the leaders in your organization? The board members? The advisors? If you work in public service, does leadership reflect the diversity of the communities you serve?

We call upon all our colleagues in the legal profession to get close with the people you serve and the communities you owe a duty to. When we center our communities, we center justice.

Allyssa Victory works in police practices and labor and employment law, and is currently an elected ADEM Delegate for Assembly District 18. Janani Ramachandran works in domestic violence and tenants rights law, and is a candidate for CA State Assembly District 18.