Home » Uncategorized » Letter to a law student interested in social justice – William P. Quigley

Letter to a law student interested in social justice – William P. Quigley


As a young lawyer interested in working in the field of social justice, there are many questions which come up in one’s mind. In the present day, it is a fact that very few graduates from the best law schools of the country take up the practice of law in courts. Even fewer join social movements or take up work which involves using the law to uphold rights and ensure accountability. Most law schools do have sub cultures where seeds of changing the face of the world are sown, but somehow they wither away in the cloud of main stream lawyering. Why do these revolutionary feelings wither away? Is it dying faith in the judiciary or is it the lack of social responsibility? How does one keep the fire burning?

The following is an extract from an inspirational piece written in the form of a letter by a professor sharing his thoughts on the decision of his student to take up the practice of social justice law. The professor addresses questions which arise in a student’s mind and narrates what to expect in the profession and how to go about it. The full text is available here.

Excerpts of the letter from the professor to his student (with added information within parentheses on the context or portion of write-up):

(The letter begins with the professor narrating a true story where law students had volunteered to work in the Gulf Coast region of the United States which was badly affected by Hurricane Katrina. At the end of a week’s work, the students were sitting together sharing and reflecting on their experience)

“The last law student to speak had just returned from working
in the destroyed neighborhood. He had been picking through a
home trying to find evidence that might lead to the discovery of
who owned the property. He also was on the verge of tears. The
experience was moving. The student felt that it was a privilege
to be able to assist people in such great need. It reminded him,
he paused for a second, of why he went to law school. He went
to law school to help people and to do his part to change the
world. “You know,” he said quietly, “the first thing I lost in law
school was the reason that I came. This will help me get back on

(The professor goes on to write…)

“The first thing I lost in law school was the reason that I
came.” What a simple and powerful indictment of legal education and of our legal profession. It is also a caution to those of us
who want to practice social justice lawyering.

Many come to law school because they want in some way to
help the elderly, children, people with disabilities, undernourished people around the world, victims of genocide, or victims of
racism, economic injustice, religious persecution or gender

Unfortunately, the experience of law school and the legal profession often dilute the commitment to social justice lawyering.

The repeated emphasis in law school on the subtleties of substantive law and many layers of procedure, usually discussed in
the context of examples from business and traditional litigation,
can grind down the idealism with which students first arrived. In
fact, research shows that two-thirds of the students who enter
law school with intentions of seeking a government or public interest job do not end up employed in that work.”

(“Social justice lawyering is counter-cultural in law school and in the legal profession”)

“Those who practice social justice law are essentially swimming
upstream while others are on their way down. Unless you are
serious about your direction and the choices you make and the
need for assistance, teamwork and renewal, you will likely grow
tired and start floating along and end up going downstream with
the rest. We all grow tired at points and lose our direction. The
goal is to try to structure our lives and relationships in such a
way that we can recognize when we get lost and be ready to try
to reorient ourselves and start over.”

(“Be willing to be uncomfortable”)

“I think this is the first step of any real educational or transformative experience – a willingness to go beyond your comfort
zone and to risk being uncomfortable.

The revolutionary social justice called for by Dr. King is not
for the faint of heart – it calls on the courage of your convictions. It takes guts.

Questioning the fairness and justice of our laws and policies is
uncomfortable for most because it makes other people

Many people are perfectly satisfied with the way things are
right now. For them, our nation is the best of all possible nations, and our laws are the best of all possible laws, and therefore, it is not right to challenge those in authority. For them, to
question the best of all possible nations and its laws is uncalled
for, unpatriotic and even un-American. These same criticisms
were leveled at Dr. King and continue to be leveled at every
other person who openly questions the fairness and justice of
current laws and policies.

So, if you are interested in pursuing a life of social justice, be
prepared to be uncomfortable – be prepared to press beyond
your comfort zone, be prepared to be misunderstood and criticized. It may seem more comfortable to engage in social diversions than to try to make the world a better place for those who
are suffering. But if you are willing to be uncomfortable and you
invest some of your time and creativity in work to change the
world, you will find it extremely rewarding.”

(“Critique the law”)

“Critique of current law is an essential step in advancing justice. Do not be afraid to seriously criticize an unjust or inadequate set of laws or institutions.



Critique alone, however, is insufficient for social justice advocates. While you are engaged in critique, you should also search
for new, energizing visions of how the law should and might
move forward.

You have some special talents in critiquing the difference between law and justice because of your legal training.

All laws are made by those with power. There are not many
renters or low-wage workers in Congress or sitting on the bench.
The powerless, by definition, are not involved in the lobbying,
drafting, deliberating and compromising that are essential parts
of all legislation. Our laws, by and large, are what those with
power think should apply to those without power. As a student
of law, you have been taught how to analyze issues and how to

Social justice insists that you first examine these laws and
their impacts not only from the perspective of their legislative
histories, but also from the perspective of the elderly, the working poor, the child with a learning disability and the single mom
raising kids, who are often the targets of these laws.

So how do you learn what the elderly, the working poor or the
single moms think about these laws? It is not in the statute, nor
the legislative history, nor the appellate decision. That is exactly
the point. If you are interested in real social justice, you must
seek out the voices of the people whose voices are not heard in
the halls of Congress or in the marbled courtrooms.”

(“Critique the myths about lawyers and social justice”)

“Lawyers who invest time and their creativity to help bring
about advances in justice will tell you that it is the most satisfying and the most fulfilling work of their legal careers. But they
will also tell you that social justice lawyers never work alone –
they are always part of a team that includes mostly non-lawyers.

Take civil rights for example. There is no bigger legal, social
justice myth than the idea that lawyers, judges and legislators
were the engines that transformed our society and undid the
wrongs of segregation. Civil rights lawyers and legislators were
certainly a very important part of the struggle for civil rights, but
they were a small part of a much bigger struggle. Suggesting that
lawyers led and shaped the civil rights movement is not accurate
history. This in no way diminishes the heroic and critical role
that lawyers played and continue to play in civil rights advances,
but it does no one a service to misinterpret what is involved in
the process of working for social justice.

Law school education, by its reliance on appellate decisions
and legislative histories of statutes, understandably overemphasizes the role of the law and lawyers in all legal developments.
But you who are interested in participating in the transformation of the world cannot rely on a simplistic overemphasis of the
role of the law and lawyers. You must learn the truth.

In fact, the law was then and often is now actually used
against those who seek social change. There were far more lawyers, judges and legislators soberly and profitably working to
uphold the injustices of segregation than ever challenged it. The
same is true of slavery, child labor, union-busting, abuse of the
environment, violations of human rights and other injustices.”

(“Build relationships with people and organizations challenging injustice: Solidarity and community”)

“Social justice advocacy is a team sport. No one does social
justice alone. There is nothing more exciting than being a part of
a group that is trying to make the world a better place. You
realize that participating in the quest for justice and working to
change the world is actually what the legal profession should be
about. And you realize that in helping change the world, you
change yourself.

Solidarity recognizes that this life of advocacy is one of relationships. Not attorney-client relationships, but balanced personal relationships built on mutual respect, mutual support and
mutual exchange. Relationships based on solidarity are not ones
where one side has the questions and the other the answers. Solidarity means together we search for a more just world, and together we work for a more just world.”



“Humility is critically important in social justice advocacy. By
humility, I mean the recognition that I need others in order to
live a full life, and I cannot live the life I want to live by myself.
By humility, I mean the understanding that even though I have
had a lot of formal education, I have an awful lot to learn. By
humility, I mean the understanding that every person in this
world has inherent human dignity and incredible life experiences that can help me learn much more about the world and myself.”

Further in the 28 page letter, the professor writes about the importance of engaging in regular reflection, being patient and flexible and being joyful, hopeful, inspiring and loving. The full text of the letter is available here.


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