July 01, 2015

Galvanizing Young Lawyers in the Twenty-first Century

by Jason Sengheiser

“A lawyer’s either a social engineer or . . . a parasite on society. A social engineer [is] a highly skilled, perceptive, sensitive lawyer who [understands] the Constitution of the United States and [knows] how to explore its uses in solving problems of local communities and in bettering conditions of the underprivileged citizens.” These are the words of Charles Hamilton Houston, one of America’s most important civil rights attorneys and a mentor to Thurgood Marshall. Of course, Marshall eventually became a Supreme Court justice, but he also helped found and became chief of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as a young lawyer at the age of 32. Clearly, Marshall and many others of his generation took up the challenge to be social engineers. As we look ahead to the twenty-first century, what can be done to galvanize young lawyers to become the social engineers of the future?

I volunteer with a local legal aid agency. Part of what I do is talk to groups of young lawyers about becoming volunteers and helping indigent clients pro bono. In doing so, I have learned the challenge is not to inspire young lawyers, because there is no shortage of interest. Many young lawyers are passionate about and want to do this kind of work. Rather, the challenge is to expose, reinforce, and help direct the zeal of young lawyers through programming and opportunities.

While the old Jim Crow fought by, among many others, Houston and Marshall is dead, there is now what legal scholar Michelle Alexander has called “The New Jim Crow,” the rebirth of a racial caste system in the United States resulting in millions of African Americans being imprisoned and relegated to a permanent second-class status. “The New Jim Crow” is not the previous generation’s blatant segregation, but a more insidious institutional racism. However, there is still blatant racism—a leading candidate for president has recently called for barring Muslims from entering the United States. Modern society also wrestles with gender equality and numerous other social justice issues affecting minority groups, including enormous disparities in the distribution of wealth.

There are some specific things that can be done to recruit young lawyers to tackle these challenges in the next century. First, the expansion and enhancement of law school–affiliated legal clinics, the setting in which most young lawyers first encounter civil rights and social justice issues as lawyers, will provide foundational training for future civil rights practitioners. In recent years, the ABA Young Lawyers Division has passed resolutions advocating for expanded structured clinical experiences at school-sponsored legal clinics and outside legal aid providers. More-over, the ABA Presidential Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education recently bolstered this initiative by encouraging law schools to be more innovative in providing legal education. This momentum can be used to encourage the creation of clinics in law schools that lack them, and to expand the experience where they already exist. Helping law students and young lawyers gain experience litigating or engaging in issues of civil rights and social justice will support greater engagement in civil rights and social justice issues after law school.

Second, partnerships between law schools and local legal aid providers would help to leverage the resources of existing organizations to expose young lawyers to the abundant opportunities to work on civil rights and social justice issues as a career or on a pro bono or part-time basis. Not every lawyer can engage in civil rights work full-time. However, there is no shortage of opportunities to engage on a pro bono or part-time basis. Civil rights practitioners can also help facilitate training as well as part-time and pro bono work in these areas. These partnerships can help increase offerings of continuing legal education programs targeting young lawyers and facilitated by lawyers actively involved in civil rights and social justice work. Such programs will help to continue developing the skills and knowledge of young lawyers in these areas.

Giving young lawyers exposure to this type of work, continuing legal education to provide ongoing training and interaction with civil rights and social justice practitioners, and information on opportunities to become involved will provide the raw material to allow young lawyers to engage in civil rights and social justice work. In other words, such initiatives will create and nurture young lawyers to become social engineers. There is plenty of engineering to be done. But if young lawyers are given opportunities to develop and utilize their abilities, there will be a new generation of skilled lawyers working on civil rights and social justice issues. 

Jason Sengheiser

Jason Sengheiser is an Associate Circuit Judge for the 22nd Circuit Court in the City of St. Louis. He received his J.D. from Saint Louis University School of Law and his LL.M. from Columbia Law School.