- Always remember the reasons you went to law school. Don’t get sidetracked by the prestige of a blue-chip firm. If I hadn’t, I’d have found my passion for civil rights earlier.
As a lawyer with 45-plus years of practice, I often reflect upon whether my path as a lawyer would have been different if I’d known in law school what I know now.
I went to law school during a time of social unrest. Before I started, there had been the political assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy. Both were horrifying and galvanizing. On top of that, there were ongoing wars in Southeast Asia.
Most significant was the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but all dramatically impacted my reasons for attending law school. I went to law school to be a socially impactful lawyer.
Despite my lofty ambitions, finding my lane as a civil rights lawyer took time. After law school, surprisingly to my friends and me, I took a job with a blue-chip Chicago law firm. For almost two years working as an associate, I did research, carried bags, and watched the lawyers represent wealthy clients. And at times, I worked on pro bono cases.
But all the while, despite the status, I felt like I was wasting time.
While at the firm, I had an eye-opening experience. I spent a summer on loan to a commission led by US Rep. Ralph Metcalf, looking into police abuse by the Chicago Police Department. The work included interviewing police brutality victims. This effort stirred my passion for victims and became a window into my future path.
Later I worked briefly for the state’s attorney’s office in Chicago and the district attorney’s office in Oakland, California. Although I initially gave little thought to being a prosecutor, I found the experience enlightening and, at times, rewarding.
Still, I didn’t believe I’d found my calling. I still had it in mind that civil rights, especially representing victims of police brutality, was my natural lane.
Six years out of law school, the vision for my career became clear. In 1979, I was selected by the mayor of Oakland to conduct a private investigation into the shooting death of a 14-year-old African American boy by Oakland police officers. I reached a very unpopular conclusion that the shooting was unjustified.
From there, over time, I became a full-time civil rights lawyer specializing in police litigation. My practice has spanned the entire spectrum of police litigation, including such high-visibility cases throughout California as representing Rodney King in his civil case against the city of Los Angeles; representing Oscar Grant, who was wrongfully shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer; and representing rapper Tupac Shakur after he was stopped for jaywalking by Oakland police officers.
Likewise, for 20-plus years, I was a television “talking head.”
In retrospect, had I known my career would have taken this direction, I wish I’d taken more state and federal civil rights and related courses. I’d have focused electives on courses important to representing victims, such as employment, immigration, prison law, law enforcement, and health care. Likewise, I would have been more in tune with different clinical programs and more conscious of the public discourse concerning controversial public issues, especially public funding and advocacy.
Also, given that I’ve been in the media most of my career, I wish that I’d taken more media-related courses while in law school, largely because much of my practice involves public issues. If I had known about the media and its connection to my type of practice, my learning curve would have been shorter.
Always remember the reasons you went to law school. Don’t get sidetracked by the prestige of a blue-chip firm. If I hadn’t, I’d have found my passion for civil rights earlier.