On being responsibly bold (and other advice for legal activists)

The short version is here

At the recent therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) workshop hosted by Professor Carol Zeiner and the St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami, Florida, I urged us all to be “responsibly bold” in our research and advocacy for legal and policy change. The term resonated with a number of workshop participants, and that response has prompted me to gather three clusters of advice for legal activists who are working toward the greater good.

The advice is based primarily on two ongoing points of significant involvement:

  1. engaging in scholarship, legislative drafting and advocacy, and public education on workplace bullying and mobbing; and
  2. researching and proposing law reform measures concerning the widespread practice of unpaid internships.

It is also informed by the promise of our new organization, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, which is happily recruiting founding members.

I hope these thoughts will inspire your ideas about how to be effective in a legal activist mode.

Be responsibly bold

If it matters, write about it, even if no one else is doing so.

Take smart chances to be among the first, if not the first, to address a topic worthy of attention.

Furthermore, instead of merely analyzing the problem and providing broad parameters for a legal or policy response, offer a proposed solution with enough detail to lead the discussion on what should be done.

This may include outlining the specific strategy of a legal challenge or drafting a proposed statute or regulation.

As a law professor, I’ve noticed that some legal scholars opt not to take their analysis and writing this far. They critique a set of judicial decisions or an existing statute thoroughly and relentlessly, leaving nothing to pick over but the bones. However, when it comes to proposing a solution, they lapse into safer generalities. Rather than proposing, for example, specific language for a statutory amendment or a revised regulation, they morph into Impressionism and finish with erudite yet vague conclusions.

Instead, when recommending new or reformed public policies, the potential agenda setting approach is to write up the proposed statute or regulation. Greater specificity fuels the possibility of playing a more significant role in changing law and policy.

Be willing to write the first draft

Many years ago, Anthony Amsterdam, a New York University law professor and legendary civil rights lawyer, suggested to a group of new law instructors that if we are willing to be “the bottom name on the brief,” i.e., the person who does the grunt-level research and drafting even though others with fancier titles are listed above us on the pleading, then we can potentially enjoy the greatest influence over the shaping of the document.

Tony’s maxim taught me a lesson, and it has been verified in virtually every legal, political, policy, and bureaucratic setting to which I have been privy: Do a really good job on a first draft and the words continue to influence others. They may even help to frame a broader legal or policy agenda.

A quality brief or proposed statute becomes the template for others to borrow or tweak. A well-crafted set of talking points appears time and again in the remarks and speeches of others. A neatly worded resolution cuts through a lot of excess verbiage and half-baked thoughts in a meeting or conference.

Seek out partnerships and affiliations

A change agent should seek out partnerships and affiliations with organizations, associations, and agencies that can help to advance one’s work. Connections with the right groups and individuals can lead to a sharing of ideas, access, and resources. They can open doors that may appear to be closed when working solely on our own.

Considerations of partnerships and associations overlap strongly with writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin’s suggestion that in order to achieve desired change, those of like interests and commitments should gather together in “tribes.”

In his 2008 book, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, Godin defines a tribe as “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea,” adding that the two things a group needs to operate as tribe are “a shared interest and a way to communicate.”

He has further identified three types of tribes and individuals:

  • Those who react,
  • those who respond, and
  • those who initiate.

He suggests that while many simply react or respond to external stimuli, genuine leaders initiate by recognizing needs and opportunities that others miss, thereby playing a greater part in shaping change.

I am currently serving as the first board chairperson of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence. For those interested in law reform that embraces well-being and psychological health, I hope that the ISTJ will serve as a nurturing, inclusive, and forward-looking tribe. One look at the overall state of the world should tell us that a TJ perspective is badly needed when it comes to informing our laws, legal systems, and legal institutions.

We’ve got our work cut out for us. Let us be among the change agents who offer responsibly bold and humane solutions that advance human dignity.

***

A slightly different version of this post was published by the Therapeutic Jurisprudence in the Mainstream blog. Portions of the above are adapted from my 2016 article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice), which can be downloaded here without charge.  It’s a very personal piece, filled with reflections on my experiences with law reform activities. The roles of TJ and interdisciplinary connections figure prominently in my commentary.

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