In April, the NLG gathered to honor Alan Brotsky and connect his long history of legal work to what lawyers on the left are taking on today. “Defending Dissent” was a memorial of sorts to Brotsky, but also a discussion of his legacy and what it means to be a radical lawyer.
“The legacy of Al Brotsky is to fight for justice and use the law to do that,” said panelist Walter Riley.
Marvin Stender, who chaired the event, described Brotsky as “a brilliantly innovative lawyer and fiercely political person – a master of the craft of lawyering.”
Panelists Michael Flynn and Gabriela Lopez rounded out the panel – relatively new attorneys, they discussed their own practice and how it fit within their own “fierce” political ideals.
One thing all of these attorneys shared was that they were activists in addition to being lawyers. Generally, they were activists first. This was definitely in the spirit of Brotsky, and similar to how many people find their way to legal practice and Guild membership.
“Decades before Cesar Chavez, Alan was organizing asparagus workers,” said Stender. Riley described his reason for becoming a lawyer was that he had been an activist since he was 12-years-old, and saw the role attorneys could play in political movements.
“Activist attorney” may seem to have an inherent tension, however. But echoing the philosophy of Brotsky and other earlier Guild attorneys, panelists recognized the importance of working within, or at least with, official institutions, even if one finds those institutions unjust.
As Flynn put it, “You can be a lawyer without believing that the system is fair and just.”
So what about that “system” then? “I think we need to break it and start over,” said Lopez. “Until we do that, we need to push wherever we can to change it.”