Why I Became a Civil Rights Attorney

Abre’ Conner
The Constitution’s protections in criminal cases extends to all individuals, not just those who can pay for better representation.

The Constitution’s protections in criminal cases extends to all individuals, not just those who can pay for better representation.

Joe Ybarra/EyeEm via GettyImages

If you liked this piece, listen to Abre’ Conner’s chat with Amir Whitaker and Daiquiri Steele: "Administrative (In)Action? What are your state and local options for student and education-based complaints?"

Working to eradicate barriers for individuals and groups who have been historically oppressed led me to my legal practice. At the ACLU, I litigate and lead legal policy projects regarding free speech, education equity, racial justice, environmental justice, criminal justice, and economic justice issues in coordination with communities in the Central Valley and Northern California. 

I went to law school to learn how to shape or change laws that unfairly harm historically oppressed communities. Growing up in the South, I witnessed and experienced racial discrimination and environmental injustice from an early age. I was called the n-word in elementary school and punished in my high school for standing up to include civil rights as part of the regular history curriculum.

Living in a small, rural town, I quickly became aware of the intersectional ways that inequitable systems harmed people of color in the legal system and saw other actions that affected our fundamental quality of life. Black people were rarely asked for their input regarding air quality issues or actively engaged during public comment periods, although many of us suffered lung problems based on our environment. Because my hometown is rural, there was plenty of space to build industrial plants and waste facilities—of course, these facilities often were placed near communities of color and likely contributed to poor air quality with related health hazards. But the disparities surpassed environmental issues.

I was racially profiled by police right after high school, and I learned in criminal court that access to an attorney who zealously represents their clients made all the difference. In the courtroom, I heard attorneys asking for their client’s name minutes before arguing on their behalf in court. Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and low-income individuals still have difficulty obtaining zealous representation. I was also shocked to hear a public defender share that her docket was so full that people needing criminal representation would have a better chance if they hired a private attorney. However, the Constitution’s protections in criminal cases extends to all individuals, not just those who can pay for better representation. I wanted to change this.

During college and law school, I worked on Capitol Hill to better understand how the legislative process affects civil rights work. To help inform my practice, I took courses such as Critical Race Theory, Environmental Law, and Education Law. I worked for organizations and government entities that helped shape what type of civil rights lawyer I ultimately wanted to be, such as the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights; NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment. I worked for the White House and the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and Office of Equal Employment Opportunity Services. All these experiences gave me insight into what my clients could potentially expect when we filed federal complaints, which agency was best suited for our needs, and how to get federal data.  For my civil rights experience in law school, I reached out to professors and mentors, sent emails to organizations for informal interviews, and attended various public-interest job fairs, networking events, and conferences.

Being a civil rights attorney often means listening to communities and helping them find the right solutions for their needs; we try to identify the root cause of the problem to stop it from reoccurring. I currently am litigating a case against the City and County of San Francisco because the police department racially profiled Black people during an operation several years ago. Our lawsuit addressed these racially discriminatory arrests, which were made possible through the city’s indifference to SFPD's longstanding unconstitutional practices. In addition, I filed a federal administrative complaint with Visalia Unified School District because Black students are subject to a racially hostile environment. These students have been complaining to the district for more than a decade, but because they comprise a small population, fewer than 3 percent of the student population, their concerns have been brushed to the side.

I do this work because systemic and individual violations of the law cannot go unchecked. I work daily to chip away at a system that often works against my clients.

Abre’s Top 4 Tips for Becoming a Civil Rights Attorney

  1. There is no linear path. Yes, your internships matter, but your drive matters more.
  2. Know your professors who practice civil rights law. Professors are a great resource when considering job opportunities.
  3. Say yes more than no early in your career. As a civil rights attorney, you must be flexible and adapt to change and new facts with almost every case, including completely changing legal strategies. I’m continuously learning new skills and lessons every day and I realize that the legal profession is a never-ending educational process, which is exciting.
  4. Approach the work with humility. Those of us in the legal profession have some privilege, and some individuals have more privilege than others. It does not help your clients to ignore these facts. You will be a better colleague and advocate for your clients to acknowledge it and be an ally. 

If you liked this piece, listen to Abre’ Conner’s chat with Amir Whitaker and Daiquiri Steele: "Administrative (In)Action? What are your state and local options for student and education-based complaints?"

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Abre’ Conner

Abre’ Conner is a staff attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California and founder of Together Restoring Economic Empowerment. She is based in Sacramento, California.