From SCSJ’s work is profiled in the June 8th edition of NC Lawyer’s Weekly
SCSJ’s work is profiled in the June 8th edition of NC Lawyer’s Weekly
Social change in the South
Durham nonprofit uses ‘community lawyering’ to help communities help themselves
By Diana Smith, Staff Writer
Each week, the three attorneys from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice come to work in a snug office space in downtown Durham.
Their quarters are cramped and their numbers are small, but their mission is huge to use their acumen to empower communities to become their own legal advocates.
It’s a lesser-known approach to practice called community lawyering. Instead of focusing on an individual client, attorneys work with community organizers, researchers and other specialists to address the underlying social problems that bring clients, often low-income ones, to court in the first place.
“It’s a multi-disciplinary model, so we work as a team to represent community-based organizations,” explained SCSJ attorney and founder Anita Earls.
The nonprofit also uses a “human-rights perspective” to focus on a broad range of legal issues such as immigration and civil rights that may have far-reaching political or legal implications.
“Taking a human-rights perspective is a little different,” she said. “We’re not filing cases in the International Court of Justice, but we think that the issues our clients face in the state and in the South should be evaluated next to those international human-rights guarantees.”
That description may seem abstract, and SCSJ attorney Chris Brook understands that.
He recently spoke on a panel about community lawyering at the ABA Equal Justice Conference in Orlando, Fla.
“A lot of people had not heard the term before,” he said. “The concept itself was not challenging for them to grasp. But to a certain extent it was a challenge to the way they’ve been taught to operate as attorneys.”
That’s because the philosophy runs somewhat counter to the traditional adversarial model taught in law schools.
Add the human-rights component to the mix, and it’s understandable that SCSJ’s mission might not be crystal clear, Brook said.
“You often have to explain that part of our organizational premise to people,” he told North Carolina Lawyers Weekly.
Explanation: Part One
In basic terms, community lawyering de-emphasizes litigation and encourages attorneys to work with communities to resolve legal problems out of court and keep them resolved.
In a 2004 article in the Utah Bar Journal, scholar David Dominguez explained that type of success won’t happen simply through pro bono work.
“The strategy of community lawyering is to lessen the growing demand for legal services by teaching the community what more it can do for itself, capitalizing on its own informal problem-solving capabilities as much as possible before turning to attorneys,” Dominguez wrote.
For example, Brook is working with three community groups in Greensboro in a multi-racial collaboration to address gang violence.
“What they’re trying to do is to bring gang leaders together to renounce violence and see their organizations as a way of supporting their community instead of as something that must be suppressed and eliminated,” Earls said.
The legal component comes into play because Brook initially went to court for several members of the collaborative who had criminal charges pending against them. The charges were later dismissed.
“Largely it’s not because of any great legal work. But because we rigorously collected the facts and got testimony from those involved, we found there was no real crime there and that the charges that had been brought just weren’t born out of what actually transpired,” he said.
Explanation: Part Two
Another way to understand the community-lawyering model is to view it in terms of outcomes, Brook said.
Lawyers are typically trained to see a problem and “destroy it,” he explained.
And expedited elimination of the issue may sometimes be all a client wants or needs, particularly in practice areas such as business litigation.
But because of SCSJ’s community-oriented approach, having an attack-dog mentality does not necessarily fit with its organizational mission.
“What community lawyering says is that you certainly need to bring your specialized knowledge of the law to the community,” Brook said. “But if you just walk into a room and have the loudest voice to drown out everyone else’s, you might solve the problem you’re trying to destroy in the short term.
“But long-term, you run the risk of making the community dependent upon you such that when the attorney is not there, the community can’t function.”
That’s why SCSJ focuses on showing communities that legal remedies are just one of many tools they can employ to combat their problems locally.
Plus, the most effective strategies that lawyers can use in court will emerge from their dialogue with those immersed in the communities themselves, Earls said.
“There are some communities I’ve worked with since law school, so I know them very well and I know their problems very well,” said Brook. “But the fact of the matter is I am never going to understand the challenges their communities have in the same visceral way they do. And pretending I do is not only inaccurate, but it’s presumptuous.”
Community-oriented, yet individualized approach
While SCSJ has served as general counsel helping the state NAACP with voting-rights cases and assisted organizations to gain nonprofit status, it also handles cases involving individuals where the outcome can serve as an example of a broader social issue the community wants to address, Earls said.
It currently serves as co-counsel in an heirs’ property case in New Hanover County in which developers have filed a petition to partition a 180-acre strip of land called Freeman Beach.
The land has historical significance because it was the only beach in North Carolina open to African-Americans during segregation.
“The Freeman Beach case is an example of heirs’ property, but what we’re also looking at is the impact on low-income and African-American communities in particular since it’s the poor and minority communities who tend to run into these problems,” Earls said.
Similarly, SCSJ attorney Marty Rosenbluth provides direct representation to clients with immigration and deportation issues, but their particular cases can raise broader questions about policy and procedure.
For example, Rosenbluth recently represented a U.S. citizen originally from Ukraine who had been arrested on criminal charges and placed into deportation proceedings because of an error in his records at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.
It took four months for Rosenbluth to get the mistake corrected. The client’s detainer was finally lifted a week before he was scheduled for deportation.
Rosenbluth said his success on the case demonstrates that SCSJ fills a gap in North Carolina.
“One thing that gets left out of the debate and what makes what we do unique is that people who are in the immigration courts don’t have the right to have an attorney if they can’t afford one,” he said.
“Even though the consequences can be very grave, the federal government considers it a civil procedure and not a criminal one. If this family hadn’t found me through luck, they never could have hired a lawyer,” Rosenbluth said.
“He’d be gone today.”
Source: NC Lawyer’s Weekly