Lawyers, Law, and Social Change – Update Year 2010



A man with thirty summers on his head

Has seen his best, and is as good as dead

In 1984, the N.Y.U. Review of Law & Social Change published an article by me entitled “Lawyers, Law and Social Change.” The purpose of this article is to investigate what something written some twenty-five years ago might offer to people interested in this topic for the next twenty-five years. At the very least, I view this article as a critique of something written twenty-five years ago, after twenty-five years of reading, thinking, and living the topic.

The main thesis of the 1984 article was that lawyers could expect to have only a limited impact in social change work. Truly meaningful social change would be implemented by organizing masses of people. Lawyers can be most useful in assisting those efforts through legal work when they practice in areas such as corporations, where they can structure organizations in a way to maximize organizing efficacy; taxes, where they can advise progressive organizations as to how to receive the greatest benefits from the tax system without limiting their permissible organizing activities; and criminal defense, where they are instrumental in minimizing the amount of time arrested organizers have to spend in confinement. Beyond such limited roles, I argued that lawyers could expect to have no direct or significant impact on social change. Moreover, to the degree that lawyers directly involve themselves in social change work, to that degree they adversely affect the implementation of social change: sustainable social change requires the mobilization of masses of “ordinary” people who achieve change for themselves, not “experts” or “lawyers” who try to accomplish the change for them.

While I believe this thesis still holds true, this article will explore the degree to which my perspective on the role of lawyers and social change has been modified after twenty-five years. I have been particularly struck by developments in evolutionary brain science,’ especially new information concerning our conceptions of consciousness, and how this knowledge might affirmatively contribute to progressive theory and practice. These lessons are critical in light of the continuing exploitation of vulnerable groups through systemized inequality, physical violence, and ideological manipulation through physical and metaphysical means. Exploitation, violence, and resistance still depend mainly upon organizing masses of people. While lawyers are not the primary vehicle for social change, they do have a role to play both in organizing groups and establishing legitimacy for various efforts.

In Part I, I explore dialectical materialism as a theoretical basis for discussion of social change. Dialectical materialism has been a useful starting point for dialogues about social change because of its incompatibility with the fundamentalist perspectives that have historically led to the oppression and marginalization of socially weaker groups. Recent developments in evolutionary brain science provide additional support in favor of the dialectical materialist perspective. Additionally, this theoretical framework has led me to adjust some of my notions of what lawyers can contribute to social change work, particularly in constructing public narratives that create consciousness for individuals and delegitimize the status quo.

In Part II, I analyze the lessons on the relationship between organizing and social change that can be drawn from the past twenty-five years. In 1984, I argued that organizing masses of people is the key to social change; events since then have provided further support for this proposition. Modern conservative groups appear to have embraced this premise and as a result have enjoyed substantial success through organizing activities, to a degree equal to, if not surpassing, that of progressives.

In Part III, I discuss how experiences in organizing over the past twenty-five years could lead us to reconsider some of our conventional wisdom about organizing. While dialectical materialism provides a general philosophical orientation for various branches of progressive practice, the more particular questions of organizing remain. I explore the degree to which my original emphasis on socioeconomic factors, such as class, needs to be supplemented with an attention to other material factors relating to culture, organizational behavior science, and evolutionary brain science.

In Part IV, I connect the above threads to social change work by lawyers. While I still believe lawyers play a subordinate role in social change, developments in history and science over the past twenty-five years suggest new areas where lawyers have significant parts to play, particularly in the arenas of voter registration and protection, and in the (de)construction of ideology.

Suggested Reading

This is a transcript of a speech by Vince Warren, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). The speech was originally delivered at the Bertha Justice Institute Social Justice Conference on June 6, 2014.