‘We Are in a Box as Lawyers’
Over the July 2016 weekend right after Philando Castile was shot by a police officer in a suburb of St. Paul, Wolpert “got so many emails and calls—and not just from criminal lawyers.”
This immediate wellspring of concern prompted her to reconsider whether her bar association should think only in terms of fairly cautiously helping to preserve the rule of law, or whether to take a bit more of an activist position when it comes to matters of community well-being and justice.
“We are in a box as lawyers,” she said, explaining that lawyers and bar associations often think in terms of limits rather than operating in “the governance realm” in which effective new solutions can be envisioned.
The very nature of the profession can be a hindrance, she added, in that lawyers are often “locked in a zero sum game” that is adversarial at its core. In thinking about how her bar would respond to the shooting, Wolpert said she wanted to “embrace a leadership role” rather than thinking just as a lawyer.
“No one has to lose,” she said. “We need everyone to win.”
Ultimately, Wolpert recalled, “What happened is that we put on the biggest event in our history.” The bar decided to help “demystify the criminal justice system” via a public forum held this past September at University of St. Thomas School of Law, and “we had no idea so many people would be interested.”
Key stakeholders who attended and spoke included a police chief; one person who is a law enforcement analyst for CNN, was part of a White House task force on policing, and is the director of public safety for DeKalb County, Ga.; and the president of the Minneapolis NAACP.
The next step, she said, is to develop an online community to keep everyone talking as openly as they did at the forum. Wolpert said she would like to hold a second forum, and noted that as the discussions move forward, it’s important to celebrate law enforcement and the good things that officers do, at the same time that stakeholders confront the aspects that need improvement.
A vital role for bar associations, she said, is to “get the best people at the table,” and to make sure those people represent a variety of different backgrounds and perspectives.
“Our job is to open up those worlds for people so they can understand them,” she explained.