Learning How to Lawyer for Social Change as a 2L

This past summer I interned at Bay Area Legal Aid in Oakland, CA. While there, I gained invaluable experience using the law to help ordinary people. I wrote a brief for a Social Security Disability Insurance appeal and successfully represented my client before an Administrative Law Judge. At the same time, the experience made me lose my zealous belief in the law’s potential to independently act as a vehicle for fundamental social change. If it took me a whole summer to win disability benefits for one client, how could I ever eradicate systemic poverty?

My immediate reaction to this realization was disillusionment. I had come to law school in order to learn how to bring about social change. Suddenly, being a lawyer did not seem to fit within that plan, so much so that my return to Columbia made me feel existentially disoriented and emotionally deflated. However, after considerable self-reflection, reading, and discussion with other law students and lawyers, I believe I have come to terms with the law’s actual relation to social change, and in the process reconciled my identity as a law student as well as an aspiring change agent, at least for now.

My sense of the world will always be a work in progress, but at this point in my life my understanding is this: the law, either through direct representation or impact litigation, is just one tool out of many (including community organizing, policy advocacy, political activism, outreach and education) that make up and must make up a holistic strategy for meaningful and lasting social change. Law school, with the bulk of its daily reading and class discussion made up of the nuanced dissection and application of appellate cases, is directly relevant to only a narrow set of practice areas, most prominently appellate litigation and commercial work.

Amidst law school’s daily grind, so agonizingly removed from the communities I wish to serve, I find the following observations revitalizing. Although law school is all-encompassing, it is not all-defining. All of us came here for different reasons, but I am attending law school in order to gain some of the education, skills, and networks I need in order to go back to the communities I wish to serve and do so the best I can. While law school is not perfectly structured to teach me the type of multi-faceted, community-based work I hope to do when I graduate, it is a necessary component. Moreover, I am availing myself of the abundant experiential learning opportunities here in New York City to compensate.

paul's piece
Illustrated by: Minji Reem

Although being disabused of my idealism was emotionally jarring, it too is part of why I came to law school to begin with: to learnhow to become an effective agent of social change. Part of that education involves understanding that the law is a piece of that project, not necessarily the whole panacea. More fundamentally, being an authentically happy person requires recognizing that while I may have an ultimate purpose, I cannot become emotionally attached to one image, either professional or personal, of carrying it out. Rather, I should fully and honestly engage with what is happening around me and allow myself to grow from those experiences in natural and unplanned ways. For only when I stop trying to fulfill an image and focus instead on pursuing a purpose can I act most effectively in its service and reach my full potential.

A year ago, I came to law school hoping to become a lawyer for social change. Now I have come to terms with the fact that I can still help create social change, though not necessarily solely as a lawyer. And that’s fine. Indeed, that’s necessary—both for society’s benefit as well as my personal happiness. As I finish law school I hope to remember that, and to continue learning from every situation I find myself in so that I better pursue my overriding, unwavering, and life-affirming purpose of changing society for the better. 

Paul Chander is a 2L who serves on the Columbia Law School Student Senate and teaches for the High School Law Institute. Before law school, he worked as a Field Organizer for President Obama’s reelection campaign in Ohio, and in college he organized a student-run legal clinic for the homeless in Los Angeles, CA.

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