Guest contributor Kate Hendrickson explains how attorneys are lending their expertise to help the Occupy Wall Street protesters.
The Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in September when hundreds of people gathered to protest on the streets of Manhattan’s financial district, is now a global phenomenon with thousands of participants. What started out as a leaderless, vaguely defined, and haphazard movement has grown unexpectedly large and coordinated — with lawyers offering support every step of the way.
Amid thousands of arrests, summonses and what some have criticized as harsh police tactics, a group of independent and small-firm lawyers has stepped in to protect the civil rights of the demonstrators. And, in the true spirit of being part of a profession dedicated to helping others, they all are doing it for free.
An Unprecedented Nationwide Effort
Organized by the National Lawyers Guild, a non-profit organization of lawyers, legal workers and law students, hundreds of volunteers are donating their time and efforts to ensure that demonstrators can exercise their First Amendment rights.
Volunteer lawyers are providing legal strategy and tactical advice around the clock; they are acting as legal observers during the protests, documenting the names of those arrested, coordinating jail support services, bringing affirmative constitutional rights challenges, and representing protesters in court. They even have a help-desk in Zuccotti Park (the epicentre of Occupy Wall Street) where protesters can seek assistance and inquire about the legal aspects of their protest.
While the lawyers are focused mainly on protecting the rights of individuals and providing legal assistance to those who need it, the volunteers also have been able to provide more general counsel. For example, representing Occupy Wall Street’s Sanitation Working Group, the lawyers wrote a letter to Zuccotti Park’s owner in an effort to discourage a cleanup plan that would have evicted the protesters. The letter worked.
The Cavalry of Pro Bono Lawyers
Active all over the country, the number of volunteers (mostly solo practitioners and small-firm attorneys) is now more than 1000, according to Marty Stolar, a New York City solo practitioner and former National Lawyers Guild president. And many of these lawyers volunteering their time and expertise are doing so while still maintaining full-time practices.
Law schools, such as Fordham and Cardozo, have joined in the effort by offering the services of their legal clinics, and, in an unprecedented act, some unions have even volunteered their in-house lawyers to help the demonstrators.
As of yet, no big firms are involved, but as Stolar notes, “Anything can happen. While big firms are pro-capitalist, they are also pro-civil liberties.”
Whatever your position on the protests and the protesters, the generosity of these volunteer attorneys is inspiring. Whether they became involved to show their support for the protesters, or simply to ensure that constitutional rights are upheld, the point is that they are out there helping others, for free.
Isn’t helping others the reason we all (or most of us) went to law school in the first place?
If you’d like to volunteer your time to the Occupy Wall Street Protest, contact Abi Hassen, National Mass Defense Coordinator at (212) 679-5100 ext. 14 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find out how to get involved in other pro bono work in your area, you can start with the Volunteer Opportunities Guide at www.probono.net/volunteer.
About the Author
Kate Hendrickson is a lawyer licensed in California and New York. She began her career as a litigator in New York City, then spent two years as in house counsel for a large Japanese company in Tokyo. She relocated to San Francisco a few years ago.