Access, Activism, and Advocacy: A Call to Action

Future Colleagues of the Legal Profession:

I do hope that you are coping with the many challenges that you may be facing during this terrible crisis and/or are reaching out for resources that will help you and your families survive and overcome this pandemic.

In this time of hardship, if you are thinking about the law as your future profession, I ask you to renew your commitment to the importance of your role as future lawyers in upholding the rule of law. You are needed now more than ever. COVID-19 has created all kinds of hardships for many, especially those who are poor and marginalized. It has particularly magnified the class and race divide, reflected in the numbers that show disparate rates of sickness in black, brown, and many immigrant communities.  

Of particular concern is the manner in which COVID-19 is reinforcing historic biases, stereotypes, and fears — as witnessed in the reemergence of anti-Asian biases. In cities like Chicago, New York, and Milwaukee, black residents are dying at six times the rate of whites. As noted by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the first black woman elected mayor of Chicago, “Looking at those with positive test results, people who are quarantined with symptoms, hospitalizations, and deaths of real people … these numbers are absolutely shocking. … When I saw them for the first time, it was really hard for me to take them in. … This is a call to action moment for all of us…” 

In Chicago, black residents represent 29% of the population, but a horrifying 72% of fatalities, according to David Edelberg, MD, of Whole Health Chicago.  

But this is not just an American issue. In some poorer countries, especially the emerging democracies, law schools have been shut down, according to Francis SL Wang, dean emeritus at Soochow University, Kenneth Wang School of Law, China, and president and chairman of the International Association of Law Schools. Wang says this is because faculty and students do not have the technological resources to sustain their programs. This reinforces the fact that the need to support the rule of law globally has risen dramatically. 

“The COVID-19 crisis has halted many activities, but lawyering does not pause during a pandemic,” says Leticia M. Diaz, dean and professor of law at Barry University Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law. “In fact, attorneys play an even more important role in times of crisis. The COVID-19 disaster has increased the need for attorneys representing those most at risk in society.” Diaz states that, as an example, law students at her school’s Juvenile Defense Clinic are busier than ever, with clinic director Professor Kathy Puzone explaining that prisons and juvenile detention centers have become increasingly dangerous for those detained as the virus spreads within those confined spaces. Students in the clinic, under Puzone’s supervision, advocate for the release of eligible teenagers who have been arrested during this crisis. While they are not able to secure the release of every detained youth, the detention center is much safer given their efforts to significantly reduce the number of youths detained. 

“This is but a small example of the continued need for attorneys during this and any type of crisis,” says Diaz. “Lawyers will always be critical to society at large, even in the best of times. They will find an avenue to advocate for their clients, even in adverse circumstances. … A plethora of issues will surface as a result of the pandemic and we must ensure that we have the legal workforce to address the needs of our citizens.” 

With the recent passage of the COVID-19 CARES legislation, lawyers will be needed to interpret the coverage provisions to help allocate benefits to members of the community. This will be true for other broad-based federal, state, and municipal grant programs in the days ahead. The magnitude of the economic dislocation generated by this pandemic is still unknown. Lawyers will have an important role to guide us through the uncertainty and to ensure equity and justice in the allocation of these scarce resources. COVID-19 will likely introduce new areas of practice, as legal issues arise regarding broader reliance on videoconferencing, the future of the U.S. food supply, and international business with China, among others. 

Kellye Testy, LSAC CEO and president, often notes that she loves “welcoming into legal education students who have been on the tough side of the use of power, because once you have had power used in limiting ways against you, you are inspired to empower rather than limit others.” The New York Bar Association and their counterparts throughout the U.S. have already set up pro bono networks of lawyers to help those who may require legal assistance at this time. Lawyers are essential to the reconstruction of our societies as we emerge from COVID-19 and its ravages.

We have faced hardship and adversity before with courage, hope, strength, and grace — as Langston Hughes reminds us from his poem written in 1922. 

Mother to Son
by Langston Hughes

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor —
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now —
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Camille deJorna

Deputy for Legal and Global Higher Education, LSAC

Camille deJorna is deputy for legal and global higher education at the Law School Admission Council.