How to Become a Community-Centered Lawyer - ABA YLD 101 Practice Series

By Ryan C. Napoli

Community-centered lawyering is an advocacy strategy whereby the lawyer works with the community to address issues that affect the community. Community-centered lawyering, often referred to as community oriented lawyering, is a proactive form of community problem solving. Community-oriented lawyers think in terms of the problems of particular people and places. The bottom line is solving problems, increasing neighborhood safety, preventing crime, improving the quality of life and fostering economic development.

In order to better understand how to become effective community-centered lawyers, advocates must merge important three concepts: client-centered lawyering, holistic lawyering and the needs of the community.

Client-Centered Lawyering
Client-centered lawyering is the notion that the client is at the center of all decision-making. In other words, a client, after being advised of all of her options and the possible consequences of each option, on any given advocacy issue, is the final decision-maker on how to proceed in the case.

Holistic Lawyering
An effective client-centered advocate has usually mastered the art of holistic lawyering. Holistic lawyering is the concept that an advocate meets all of their client's needs. For many public interest lawyers and others that represent the indigent, this is a skill that must be well-honed. For example, during an initial interview if an indigent client informs an advocate that they have been terminated from receiving SSI (a federal benefit for the disabled poor); an experienced holistic lawyer will then ask the client how their rent and other bills are being paid. Often clients come to us with their most immediate legal need, but have not examined how a given problem may affect them globally. An effective holistic lawyer is able to not only obtain the relevant facts, but see how it may influence the bigger picture.

Holistic lawyering can be difficult and advocates generally struggle with being effective holistic lawyers in two areas: going beyond their area of expertise and/or balancing their caseload. The first issue is obvious - few lawyers or law offices, have expertise in every area of the law, and as such they may not even know the relevant questions to ask during an initial interview or consultation. The second issue which holistic lawyers, particularly public interest lawyers, have to deal with is balancing a heavy caseload. Those public interest offices that provide direct legal services to clients often find themselves doing "triage" because of the sheer number of clients coming through the door.

The Needs of the Community
An effective community-oriented lawyer must understand the needs of the community. This is often quite difficult. First, what do we mean by community? The term community may refer to residents of a particular town or neighborhood, a class of people with one thing in common (such as mental health consumers; residents of public housing or garment workers), a group of tenants in an apartment building (such as a tenants' association) or any group of people that is facing a similar issue.

In order to obtain access to the community an advocate must reach out to the community via networking, developing community partners, hosting legal rights fairs and focus groups and other outreach efforts. Sometimes obtaining access to the community is so simple or overwhelming that several residents of the community and community leaders have sought you out. However, this often not the case, particularly for those clients and communities that are the most isolated, marginalized and, in effect, in need. As such, an effective advocate will have to dedicate time and resources to visit that community and build a relationship of trust. Building a relationship of trust can often take months or even years.

Once an advocate has obtained access to a particular community she may then face additional obstacles. The most common is who is the client or decision-maker. Is it the community organization that sought your assistance on this issue or is it the people that are affected by the issue itself? There is no set answer to this question because with each scenario the situation varies. Regardless of who the actual client is, it should be communicated from the beginning the advocacy is based on how all strategies may affect those folks on the ground, not a particular organization's mission statement or goals. This problem is not limited to those organizations that referred or are working on this issue in conjunction with the advocates, but is also a common problem for public interest offices and lawyers in general. Often advocates organizational goals are placed higher than a communities needs.

Combining all three of the above concepts
The last step to becoming a community-centered lawyer is to combine the three elements above: client-centered lawyering; holistic lawyering; and the community's needs. Many advocates have mastered the characteristics of becoming an effective community-centered lawyer, but are unable to combine the three. The greatest indication that a lawyer has achieved this goal is when they are able to turn to the community to find out both what their needs are and how best to achieve them. This concept is often a difficult concept for advocates to put into practice.

An example of this common problem is the following: The tenants' association for a public housing project contacted a public interest office seeking assistance with drug dealers. The tenants' association explained to the advocates that the drug deals loitered outside the entrance of the public housing project because that is where the pay phones were located. The advocates, without consulting with the tenants' association, worked with city officials to have the pay phones removed. Unfortunately, the advocates' solution was shortsighted because, for many of the residents of the housing project, this was their only telephone. Had the advocates consulted with the community group prior to implementing a solution they would have learned that the community group had a simple solution. The tenants' association's solution was simply to install fake video cameras. In the end when their solution was implemented the problem was resolved.

In conclusion, becoming an effective community-centered lawyer combines some of the most essential elements of being a good advocate. More importantly, community-centered lawyering, when implemented effectively, is the ultimate advocacy approach and bears the greatest results for large groups of people and the marginalized and insular communities. As a result, many innovative advocates have begun to move toward addressing problems in concert with neighborhood residents.

Roger Conner, Community Oriented Lawyering: an Emerging Approach to Legal Practice


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About the Author

Ryan C. Napoli is a public interest lawyer at MFY Legal Services based in New York City. He has represented indigent individuals and groups in a wide range of cases including housing, civil rights, poverty law, family law and immigration. Napoli is a dedicated and passionate advocate of a vast array of social justice issues including having represented post-9/11 detainees. He has also worked for the Grameen Foundation implementing microcredit in the Americas and drafting legislation on Capitol Hill.

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