Summer Forum 2013: The Creative Civil Rights Lawyer
By Aleta Sprague
On Thursday we’ll be holding our 2013 Summer Pro Bono & Public Interest Forum. At the Summer Forum, law students and young lawyers will hear from attorneys in a range of public interest fields, with panels ranging from criminal law to family law to international human rights.
We are previewing each of the panels. Our first installment looks at the field of civil rights and civil liberties.
Joy Moses will be facilitating our panel on civil rights and civil liberties practice. Currently a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress, Ms. Moses was previously a children and youth staff attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. I spoke with her about her career and any advice she had to offer for new attorneys seeking to break into the field of civil rights.
Challenges and Rewards
For Ms. Moses, one of the most rewarding aspects of working as a civil rights lawyer is being part of the development of the progressive movement and a long tradition of advocacy. Today’s civil rights attorneys have the chance to continue the legacy of the civil rights movement–and even engage with more senior attorneys who were instrumental to the movement itself–while charting a path forward as the next generation seeks to tackle a new set of civil rights challenges.
As far as the difficulties, Ms. Moses noted that civil rights attorneys have to become increasingly creative with their legal theories and choices of remedies due to a legal climate that has become less conducive to civil rights litigation. In Alexander v. Sandoval, for example, the Supreme Court held that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not create a private cause of action to enforce claims of discrimination based on a disparate impact standard. The Sandoval decision has had widespread consequences, and Ms. Moses pointed to recent school-to-prison pipeline cases as a prime example of the failings of a legal standard limited to discriminatory intent.
Tips for Law Students
Internships and fellowships, to the extent those opportunities are available, can be a great way to get started in the field of civil rights and civil liberties. Ms. Moses began her legal career as an Equal Justice Works Fellow with the NAACP. (Later this summer, on July 11, we’ll be hosting another event specifically targeted at students and new attorneys interested in public interest fellowships, which should be an exciting opportunity to learn about the range possibilities out there.)
Ms. Moses also encourages law students and new lawyers to stay connected with the community and take advantage of opportunities to build their professional networks. In DC, organizations like WCL and the American Constitution Society hold frequent events and discussions, and can be a key way to meet other civil rights/civil liberties attorneys.
The ability to think creatively and devise alternative ways to achieve the goals you’ve established for yourself are important skills for a civil rights attorney, according to Ms. Moses. Also essential: serious dedication to your cause, open-mindedness, and preparation for the inevitable ups and downs that accompany this area of practice.
The civil rights/civil liberties panel will feature attorneys with civil rights experience in the non-profit, government, and private sector. Check it out for a chance to ask questions and hear directly from practicing lawyers about their daily work.
Want to learn more? Follow along on Twitter at #SF2013.