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Lawyer Spotlight: Britney Wilson

Britney Wilson is Associate Professor of Law and the Founding Director of the Civil Rights and Disability Justice Clinic at New York Law School.

Britney Wilson is Associate Professor of Law and the Founding Director of the Civil Rights and Disability Justice Clinic at New York Law School.

Were there any defining moments in your life that led to you becoming a lawyer, and particularly a civil rights attorney?

I wouldn't say there was a singular "defining moment" that made me want to be a civil rights attorney. If anything, I think it was the accumulation of many grievances over a lifetime and the realization that something needed to be done. For example, it's the memories of my mother constantly fighting with someone for something I needed or over something that went wrong, her being late to work because the school bus hadn't shown up, or her arguing with a healthcare service provider over my physical therapy appointments. It also wasn't just being disabled that motivated me. It was being a Black woman from a predominantly Black, low-income neighborhood, knowing my history, and seeing the continuation of many patterns and the effects of discriminatory systems. I couldn't identify it as the effects of discriminatory systems at the time, but I could ride through New York City and notice as I traveled how the neighborhoods, schools, housing, food options, and so much more changed.    

Tell me about your role as Associate Professor of Law and the Founding Director of the Civil Rights and Disability Justice Clinic at New York Law School. What does a typical day look like for you?

Clinics are like mini-law offices inside law schools where students learn to be lawyers by working on cases. We have several ongoing cases and projects in the Civil Rights and Disability Justice Clinic. My legal background is in class action litigation, challenging discriminatory systems, policies, or practices on behalf of large groups of people at once, primarily in federal court. That's also the type of legal work students do in my clinic.

My days aren’t predictable, as they depend on what is happening with the different cases in the clinic. I teach a seminar that meets twice a week. A typical day for me could include preparing a lesson for class, teaching the class, meeting with students, reviewing or editing legal documents for our cases, overseeing whatever other legal work needs to be done, and attending faculty or other meetings. If I'm really productive, I may get in a few hours of research or writing on whatever article or other project I'm working on. It's usually a combination of activities.   ​

What is the composition of the students who are part of the clinic like? Do most of the students have disabilities themselves or do they have family members or friends with disabilities?

The students come from an array of backgrounds, students of color, students with disabilities, LBGTQ+ students, and evening students, and students with different life experiences and perspectives. I wouldn't say most of the students have disabilities or family members with disabilities, but a number of them do. One of the things I appreciate most is when students, who don't identify as disabled and who don't necessarily have immediate family members who identify as disabled, tell me how much they've learned or that their eyes have been opened to issues of which they weren’t aware. That's the goal of education, right?

What inspired you to make the transition from litigation to teaching?

Well, I wouldn't really say I've "transitioned" from litigation because we have an active case docket in the clinic. I kind of get the best of both worlds because now I teach students to litigate by litigating with them. However, I was interested in transitioning from traditional legal practice into academia because it seemed like a space that was designed for my interest in both advocacy and writing. I also just naturally enjoy mentoring people. I'm fortunate to have and have had great mentors, and I take paying that good fortune forward very seriously. I honestly enjoyed supervising the interns and things like that when I was in practice. So, once people started suggesting to me that academia was a place I could do all of those things at once (mentor, write, and advocate), teaching just seemed like the next logical step. I didn't initially know it was an option, and I can't say I would have imagined it, but it feels like a great fit.

You wrote about the obstacles you faced as a law student with cerebral palsy in “A Body’s Work: On Self and Peer Education as a Black Disabled Lawyer” (Journal of Legal Education, Fall 2021), which included an inaccessible campus as well as the absence of courses on disability law, history, and on the intersection of racism and ableism. Have you encountered similar obstacles or challenges in the profession?

Yes, definitely. That was another big reason I decided to move into academia. Even as a civil rights lawyer, I felt like I couldn't find spaces that adequately addressed issues of race, disability, and just the intersectionality of issues more generally, professionally or in the substantive work. I couldn't find a space that really cared about all of who I was as a Black disabled person without me having to "choose an identity," so to speak. Of course, academia has many of the same problems, but I think it at least gives me more room to explore those problems and to challenge them in my own way. Also, as I write about in "A Body's Work," I think part of the problem of the lack of disability inclusion in social justice work more broadly stems from its lack of inclusion in the educational space. People think about and work on issues to which they're exposed. How they think about those things is often informed by what they're taught.   

How do you think the legal profession is doing in creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment for persons with disabilities? What could be improved?

I think everything could, should, and must be improved. If we're being honest, though, I think the fundamental structure of the profession has to change if we're going to commit ourselves to truly creating an inclusive environment for a range of people, including people with disabilities. It's more than just making sure we have certain numbers or certain "types" of people "represented." For example, it's thinking about the way the profession operates to keep certain people out—even if that's not the explicit intention. So many students with disabilities are still forced to twist themselves into knots to prove they're "disabled enough" or have a documented history of being "disabled enough" to get accommodations, especially for the bar exam. It's also about thinking about the traits and practices we emphasize as being valued in the profession. Are we just talking about wellness and self-care or are we changing the way the profession functions so that people can actually take care of themselves and have what they need?  

What advice might you give to disabled law students or fellow lawyers?

I don't really like blanket advice—​giving it or receiving it​. It truly depends on the situation. Everybody's different. What works for one person isn't necessarily going to work for someone else. So, ironically, I guess that's my advice. I think we like to pretend that there are certain universal truisms in life and in the profession, but it's much more important to figure out who you are and stay true to what works for you—no matter what anyone else says or does. Your journey isn't anyone else's, and that's not a bad thing. Embrace it. Use it.    

You’re an accomplished writer and artist with work in publications like Longreads and This American Life. You’ve also been featured in an HBO documentary, Brave New Voices, for your slam poetry. Are you working on a creative project now? If so, can you say what it’s about?

Definitely. I'm always working on creative projects. As I've said, one of the reasons I wanted to move into academia was to have more space to write and be creative. For one thing, I consider my scholarship to be "creative," and I have one forthcoming article and another in progress. But yes, I do have other projects in the works that might be more traditionally thought of as creative writing. I won't say more than that right now, but I write everything: poems, essays, op-eds, short stories, academic articles, legal briefs. It's all always coming. It just depends on when.