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Litigation Journal

Spring 2024 | Joy

Beyond the Struggle: Joy in Social Justice Lawyering

Hannah Demeritt


  • More than winning cases, the mutually beneficial relationships formed with clients are the most meaningful part of the work.
  • Social justice lawyering requires a “hope mindset.”
  • Many clinic students describe their experience as the most meaningful thing they did in law school.
Beyond the Struggle: Joy in Social Justice Lawyering

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When I tell people I practice social justice law, their response is often, “How do you do such depressing work?” Or they express admiration for what they see as a sacrifice on my part. It is true that as a social justice lawyer, my work brings me close to a lot of human suffering, and I don’t make lawyer money. But I love my work. I feel grateful to have found work that I find fulfilling and wouldn’t rather be doing anything else. Some of the reasons I love what I do are likely apparent, and others perhaps less so.

I have been a social justice lawyer since I started practicing law. I left a budding career in social work—working as a case manager assisting formerly homeless families—for law school after realizing that what I enjoyed most, and was best at, was advocating for my clients in the systems threatening their stability. I spent hours on the phone and in the offices of agencies that administer welfare, food stamps, public housing, Social Security, and Medicaid, making sure that my clients received what they were entitled to. I went to law school so that I could do similar work but with more power in my toolbox. After law school, I worked as a court-appointed attorney, representing adults and juveniles in state criminal court. For the past 12 years, I’ve worked at a law school clinic where we serve low-income clients who have health-related legal problems. Throughout my career, my clients have all been poor, most of them have had little education, and many of them have been people of color. Now all my clients also have a serious health condition contributing to or causing their legal problems, and many suffer from heavily stigmatized conditions, such as HIV, mental illness, or substance use disorders.

In my current practice, I routinely represent clients in a couple of areas. I represent clients who cannot work due to poor health but have been denied Social Security disability benefits. Two-thirds of people who apply for Social Security disability are denied. From the time my clients appeal their denial, they wait for a year to two years, incomeless, for a hearing. While they wait, not only are they sick and without income, but they also feel the stigma of being unable to work and seeking public benefits. The good news is that we usually win these cases. The income the government provides is woefully inadequate, but it makes a huge difference in our clients’ lives. I also represent clients who are incarcerated in federal prison and seeking compassionate release due to grave medical conditions. These clients live with terrible illnesses, in prison, often without adequate medical care, and for federally long (i.e., draconian) sentences. It’s unimaginably awful. The details of their lives in prison are ghastly; they frequently hit me in the gut. Unfortunately, the odds are not in favor of our clients being released. But they deserve to be out of the carceral system, where their medical needs can be properly attended to, and so we fight despite the odds because sometimes we win.

Why I Enjoy This Work

Why would working in proximity to so much human suffering, to cruel systemic injustice, make me happy? The most obvious explanation is that it feels good to help people. Winning ongoing income for a client who has had none? Getting a sick client released from prison? These moments are thrilling, with many tears of joy and relief. For a moment, my client and I can set aside thinking about the unfairness of the systems of oppression that will continue to affect them and we can celebrate their victory. I am ecstatic when we win a case because it means that my clients’ material conditions will dramatically improve. This past summer, a client in a disability appeal recovered $100,000 in back pay. He had been seeking disability benefits since 2014 and had been our client since 2016. This is an astounding amount of money for someone who has lived with no income for almost a decade. When I think about the fact that it comes out to about $10,000 a year in income, I am not enthusiastic, but this was an incredible win for our client and deserving of celebration. I still smile when I think about it.

More than winning cases, the mutually beneficial relationships I form with my clients are the most meaningful part of the work I do. Being a social justice lawyer means that your clients almost never choose you—instead, they take what is available to them. I never forget this. Many of my clients trust me with matters of great consequence to them because they have little or no choice but to. That trust is sacred to me. I often learn their deepest secrets, their sources of shame and fear, as well as their hopes and dreams. I comb through their medical records, and their criminal records and disciplinary records if they’re in prison. I think about how vulnerable this would make me feel. I also connect with many of my clients on a human level, and not just as their legal representative. They show me pictures of their children or their dogs, whose names I learn; we joke around and make each other laugh; we might share a meal together. I get to know my clients well and care deeply about them. I cannot change their circumstances, but I can be an empathic and nonjudgmental listener, and they come to see how much I care and how tenaciously I advocate for them. This matters. Even when they lose, I believe it is meaningful for them to have had a dedicated advocate, someone who was solidly on their side and fought hard for them.

Of course, some clients have trouble trusting me—a highly educated, middle-class, White woman whom they may see as part of the same system that wields power over their lives in unforgiving ways. And given the way that most of my clients have been treated by powerful institutions, why should they trust me? Usually, distrust can be overcome, but not always, and I do not expect my clients’ gratitude in return for being their advocate. Regardless, I benefit from the relationships with clients themselves, apart from outcomes. Building relationships with my clients expands my overall capacity for empathy and compassion and helps me be more nonjudgmental in general. In this way, I think my work helps me be my best self, not just as a lawyer but as a person in the world.

Social justice lawyering also presents a variety of challenges, which in turn keep me highly engaged. Every client we represent is a David facing a Goliath. That’s a challenge built into the work I do—I represent underdogs and rarely have a case that will be a “slam dunk.” This challenge inspires me to strive for a positive outcome for my clients, and on a macro level, I eagerly accept the challenge to beat an oppressive system or institution. Sometimes the challenge is in figuring out a dark corner of the byzantine rules and regulations governing Social Security disability benefits or how the latest Sentencing Commission rule changes will be interpreted by courts considering compassionate release motions. These challenges give me a chance to do interesting legal research and analysis. A different challenge is how to take the facts of a client’s case and create a compelling narrative; this is one of my favorite parts of lawyering and an important part of most of my cases. Other times, the challenge has nothing to do with the law, or even with building trust with a client, but it might be logistical: how to get in touch with a client who doesn’t have a phone or a permanent address. These challenges require creative problem-solving. Each of the challenges is intellectually stimulating and engaging. I am rarely bored at work; I feel lucky that my work challenges and engages me in the ways it does.

Social justice lawyering also enhances my life by providing a productive outlet for my rage about injustice. I feel a lot of impotent rage about injustices I cannot do anything about. I can’t begin to touch most of the injustice in the world, or even in my community. Even though I cannot solve systemic injustice, and the direct representation I do does not address underlying causes, I work every day to lessen the suffering of clients and make things more just for them. It’s a drop in the ocean, so to speak, but it improves the lives of some individuals. Directing my energy to helping individuals get the most fairness they can out of an unfair system helps me not fall into a pit of impotent rage and despair. Many refer to the type of direct representation I do as “putting out fires.” My practice does not change the systems that harm our clients. Thankfully, other people are actively working to change the systems that harm our clients, and our work informs that. Meanwhile, I’m happy putting out fires. Both types of practice are needed.

The Joy of Camaraderie

Another great source of joy in my work: my colleagues and the strong sense of camaraderie I feel with fellow lawyers and the many people—including social workers, doctors, scholars, and public policy advocates—I interact with who join the fight for our clients to have better lives. One social worker at an infectious disease clinic, who often refers cases to us, calls our clinic “the Justice League.” I love this and am always quick to remind him that he too is part of the Justice League. Every person who helps with a client’s case is part of that league, or team. I am always heartened by the caring health-care providers who are willing to spend time discussing the medical aspects of a client’s case with us and who often provide an affidavit with their medical opinion. Social workers do the same. Being part of such an interdisciplinary team of helpers is truly a joy. And as for other social justice lawyers, whether I’m working on a case with them or just happen to meet them, I feel an instant bond with this group of justice-loving, dogged, dark-humored, hard-swearing, creative, tireless, and fearless advocates. This is something many social justice lawyers say they love about their work.

The centrality of hope to my work extends well beyond the confines of my legal representation and makes me a happier person. Social justice lawyering requires a “hope mindset.” Bryan Stevenson, one of my legal heroes, insists on the importance of hope in working for social justice. My office walls, planner, and refrigerator are filled with the words of social justice fighters who inspire me. Angela Davis tells me, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” Martin Luther King, Jr., reminds me that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” James Baldwin shares that he was often enraged by the world, but never despaired, because “I can’t afford despair. . . . You can’t tell the children there’s no hope.” Howard Zinn helps me remember that “[w]e don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” That I need this inspiration speaks to the fact that the work is hard and can be demoralizing at times, but when I start to lose hope or to despair, I can quickly bring myself around.

Finally, a note about the joy I find in being a clinical professor as well as a social justice lawyer. Working alongside young, bright, dedicated future lawyers has many rewards. Seeing students gain confidence, build skills, and take on the role of lawyer is immensely gratifying. Our clinic students also personally witness the many barriers and systemic injustices our clients face. Most students are deeply affected by seeing how poverty, racism, classism, homophobia, ableism, etc., affect the people they represent. They are often shocked at the inadequacy of what little social safety net there is in the United States. They are certainly astonished by the conditions their incarcerated clients face. Many clinic students describe their experience as the most meaningful thing they did in law school, and they carry this experience with them after they graduate. Some, but very few, of our students go into government or public interest work. The overwhelming majority of them go into Big Law. I hear from them about the pro bono work they’re doing, often inspired by their clinic experience, and am so grateful that they’re doing this work. I’m grateful because we need pro bono lawyers from Big Law, where firms have talented attorneys and resources that a law school clinic or legal aid office will never have. But I am also pleased for these former students, as they report that their pro bono work inspires them and is rewarding in a different way than the work they do for big clients. Hearing this reinforces my belief that much of the joy and fulfillment I get from being a full-time social justice lawyer (which is not for everyone) can be experienced through pro bono work.

I don’t think anyone in the profession would dispute that we need more lawyer happiness. Working through some of the darkest moments in clients’ lives has been a tremendous source of light in mine.

Hannah Demeritt can be reached at [email protected].