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Graphic: Civil Rights Civil Liberties Panel

Summer Forum 2021: Civil Rights & Civil Liberties Lawyers Are At The Forefront of Change

By Amelia Patrick

The final day of our 2021 Summer Forum began with a panel on civil rights and civil liberties which highlighted how this past year has increased awareness of the racial disparities in our nation. Because of the disparities experienced by people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, there is a great need for lawyers to take part in civil rights and civil liberties work to promote equal rights and justice for all people.

Veteran civil rights lawyers shared their experiences and discussed the vital role lawyers play in protecting individual rights.  Brandy Wagstaff, Legal Counsel for Litigation in the U. S. Department of Justice Criminal Section’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, moderated the conversation. Our panelists were:

  • Emily Martin, Vice President for Education & Workplace Justice at National Women’s Law Center (NWLC)
  • Sharon McGowan, Chief Strategy Officer and Legal Director of Lambda Legal
  • Jonathan Smith, Executive Director of the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
  • Taryn Wilgus Nuss, Senior Trial Attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Employment Litigation Section

The session began with a deeper dive into the panelists’ work. Emily and the NWLC focus on ensuring that women receive fair and equal treatment in the workplace and in educational settings. Specifically, the organization focuses on empowering females of color or lower socio-economic status through advocacy and policy. Emily highlighted her organization’s ongoing need for lawyers and law students to step up as pro bono partners both in DC and across the country. Law firm pro bono partnerships are a key component of NWLC’s work protecting the rights of women. Additionally, NWLC created the Legal Network for Gender Equity, a network of 800 lawyers that the NWLC connects to pro bono cases for women experiencing sexual harassment and sex discrimination. Lawyers and law students can use this resource to find pro bono cases that match their interests and experience level.

Sharon then talked about her work with Lambda Legal. Lambda Legal is the oldest legal organization devoted to the civil rights of the LGBTQ+ community. Headquartered in New York, it has offices throughout the U.S., including in Washington, D.C. The organization works to achieve full recognition of the civil rights of LGBTQ+ individuals. There are multiple ways the broader legal community can get involved in this much-needed work. Lambda Legal needs pro bono lawyers willing to take part in advocacy work. Additionally, they offer summer internships and two different fellowships, which provide unique opportunities for law students. Lambda Legal and similar organizations host a myriad of ways for lawyers and law students to get involved in pro bono work all over the country.

At the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Jonathan works on a broad range of issues including housing and disability rights. Jonathan described his organization as a smaller regional organization that is in need of a lot of pro bono partners. These partners are essential in broadening the positive impact of their housing and disability rights work. Jonathan also encouraged the law students in the audience to explore ways to get involved during their summer programs and demonstrated how post-graduate legal fellowships are a great way for new lawyers to begin public-interest careers.

Taryn’s work in the Employment Litigation Section at the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice focuses on enforcing Title VII which bans discrimination in the workplace, in both individual and corporate cases. They also work to protect veterans. Again, there are many opportunities for the legal community to help with this work. Taryn especially highlighted a multitude of opportunities for law students and young lawyers including, summer and school year internships, that are remaining partially virtual so individuals from all over the nation can take part, and the DOJ Honors Programs, which can feed into permanent jobs at DOJ. Additionally, Taryn encouraged anyone hoping to do more public-interest legal work to join Washington Council of Lawyers and take advantage of the networking and professional development opportunities we provide.

The panel also took a moment to discuss how the civil rights awakening of the past year is affecting their work. Both Jonathan and Taryn commented on the new hope they have in the future of civil rights work in the U.S. because of the racial equity discussions that have become part of the public discourse. They recognize that the change will not be automatic or immediate, but they do have newfound hope for the future.

The importance of working to incorporate intersectionality into their work also was discussed. Emily commented on how the whole women’s movement is grappling with this. Her organization is working on re-orienting its work to particularly amplify the voices of women of color. Sharon’s organization also is working to increase intersectionality by focusing on those who are most marginalized and recognizing that people may be marginalized for multiple reasons. Recognition of the multiple factors affecting clients helps lawyers provide the best possible legal representation.

The panelists then shared some final words of wisdom. All the panelists encouraged law students interested in public-interest work, but specifically, civil rights and civil liberties work, to seek internships in those areas. Additionally, all the panelists agreed that taking administrative law in law school is helpful for a career in civil rights defense. Students pursuing law firm careers can ensure pro bono is part of their professional career by seeking firms committed to pro bono. Finally, undergraduate students also have opportunities to get involved by exploring internships in other sections of civil rights organizations such as their communications or development departments. There are always opportunities to serve to help improve civil rights and civil liberties in the U.S.

Amelia Patrick is the 2021 Washington Council of Lawyers summer intern.

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