Mar 31, 2009

Embracing a Radical New Future

I got a message from someone when I made a snide remark about lawyers that got me thinking: I was just suggesting that lawyers make lousy organizers, a premise that is not very controversial to most organizers and many community lawyers. The response did not take issue with this so much as it recast 2008 electoral canvassing and partisanship as some amazing feat.

I wanted to discuss my general lack of faith in the traditional American electoral system as a true mechanism for transformative change. Perhaps that's because I've been wondering if systematic exclusion from suffrage for such large segments of the population for so long turned it into one of the main "prizes" for a rights movement, whether or not that's what the people most valued. At the end of the day, though the right to vote is important, would people choose that over the right to housing, education, or peace? While we speak of the history of struggle to gain the right to vote in this country, there are so many who still lose their right to vote because of incarceration, REAL ID, etc. Or don't have the vote at all, as non-citizens even if they fight in a war for this country or live here for a lifetime.

Maybe if we get away from republicanism (little r) and around to something more representative and truly democratic (proportional voting is one avenue) I will come around to see it as more than an opiate to keep the general population disengaged after an election is over. The whole marketing of presidential campaigns decides for the people what they should consider important. I find that to be incredibly problematic: just tonight I saw on MSNBC that Cheney said to some constituency that 'Obama was pro-Palestine' as a way to make him lose the election or at least confidence from influential segments of the powerful. This framing just proves that regardless of our small, mostly symbolic victories, by setting the parameters for debate before we even get in the ring. This is a different kind of game, people.

Trust me: it's not something I share with many people, and my status messages end up being in code half the time because I'll get people close to me blacklisted if I share what I'm really thinking about "American democracy". And civic engagement is so much more than just voting, can include so much more of our population, and doesn't have to conform to the old rules.

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Mar 30, 2009

The Economics of Law Firm Deferments and "Public Interest Placements"

There's a storm that's been brewing across Ameri¢a with this economic nuttiness. Law firms have been letting scores of lawyers go, and the once golden opportunities that locked people just entering their 3L years into jobs with fat paychecks when they graduate have all but dried up. The firms this year have been rescinding offers, and for some people, telling them that they can start in January instead of September, or that they can get a stipend for working in a public interest job for a year while the firm waits to see how the economy changes. That has led to new opportunities with all of these new lawyers who don't have anything to do - and many new challenges. First, an aside...

I've had an ongoing conversation with my sister that's spanned the last year or two about the way that there are stigmas that we both have to deal with - as a firm attorney and as a public interest newbie (not respectively). I say sometimes it's hard to convince the firm lawyers that my work is "real lawyer work" because I talk about and try to focus on community outreach, information sharing, non-legal advocacy, and respect for peoples' process rather than buy the line that this is a "nation of laws." For many firm lawyers, that just isn't "practicing law" - litigation is practicing law, or burying the world in reams of paper is practicing law, but what I think of as the most exciting part of this work is something totally else.

My sis tells me that she thinks that public interest attorneys scoff at firm attorneys regardless of their situation because they act as if they are better (i.e. not sell-outs). She (and definitely other friends of mine) have spoken about the privilege that allows many people to go into poor paying jobs in public interest: it's not a shocker that many of these positions are taken up by white women from well-educated, moneyed families. If you're the first attorney in your family, you may not have the full flexibility to just go do whatever you want to do. I buy this for some people, but not everyone. I don't curl my lip up at someone just for working at a firm, but I do if they don't seem at least interested in the other work that's out there, and don't acknowledge the privilege that they have in some way.

This all is relevant because we're starting to get inquiries from graduating students who have been asked to seek a public interest placement while the firms wait for this recession to blow over. Suddenly, students and "bright stars" from the law firm partner fast track seem to need our organizations, because they have nothing else to do. The thing is: we want to help out, but it's a tremendous burden to take someone on just for a year (or worse, 6 months), and it's not clear what the organization gets out of it, save for another breathing (and demanding) body. At a time when resources are so hard to come by, I'm sure that many groups will take them up on these offers. But what does it mean for us and for our work at the end of the day?

I'm worried, because while I want to open up our work and the prospect of doing something meaningful in the community for these new lawyers. But I've seen what they are being offered to work in our organizations for the time being, and even though it may be only 50% or 60% of what they were being offered as first-year associates, it's still incredibly obnoxious, and possibly moreso than even the full amount because it suggests how the firms value working in public interest. Half their worth/earning potential in the private sector, but that's still double what we currently make. What that says is that either the firms and foundations have been keeping us down as full time folks committed to this work, or it's our management. Either prospect is fairly grim.

These are interesting times.

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Mar 9, 2009

Writing onward

Hello faithful reader(s?). I'm back for a second, only to disappear again soon enough. Live has been a blur of trying hard to figure out my work and stay on top of life outside of work, only to slip back into a pattern of spending a lot of time on work-related stuff once again. But it's all good - no complaints, particularly in this economy. And it's good to feel like I still have mountains to learn.

I've been writing in my multiple notebooks and journals quite a bit too. I think being in a space where I have exposure to real people, and where I'm no longer just thinking about these things but trying to put some theory into practice has been really amazing. Work in the community has been slow, but gaining momentum, and the limitations of this space to write about what I'm thinking are becoming more clear as I get more specialized. So I'm searching for new places to write.

But I'm already missing this space.

So what to do? Not that the writing is going to be anything that much different from the rants and ravings that went on here, but I think I want to engage with more people and get feedback as I try to develop some ideas. Perhaps this truly does mark the end of this space... but perhaps I'll come up with specific topics to hammer on here. Like an accountability project for all the stupid National APA groups that are taking up space and pushing our community's agenda further and further into the mushy middle.

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