Peoples’ Lawyers

ACORN Personal Writings

Marble Falls        Maybe it’s nostalgia or a memory defect, but it seems like there was a time, maybe in the 70s before Nixon, where fledgling organizations, grassroots, low-income, issue-responsive, or what some call frontline groups now, could relatively easily access legal advice and help.  Legal services were actually federally funded.  There were large and effective centers on poverty and the law and a host of other issues.  There were law schools with special clinics overseen by professors and peopled by law students that gave advice and sometimes stood up in court for such groups and their members.  There were VISTA lawyers and Reginald Heber Smith Fellows, often recently out of law school, who were serving time in the field in legal aid offices.  Welfare rights couldn’t have won what did win, when we were organizing back then, without them.

Under the Nixon administration much of the federal funding of such programs was eviscerated, and there has never been any recovery.  These days seem different.  Philanthropy funds some legal operations dealing with human, civil, and women’s rights, along with death penalty issues, and the environment, but for community groups looking for lawyers to give them a hand, it’s often a needle in a haystack search.  Pro bono work is a legacy of those times, and I read about big law firms still including this in some of their practice and promotion, but the trickle down to the street level is meager compared to the potential precedent making or headline issues.  Furthermore, pro bono should not be mistaken for free.  In FCC work, for example for noncommercial radio stations trying to get licenses or solve problems, pro bono usually means hundreds of dollars per hour rather than the usual rate for such work at $500 to $1000.  Times, fashions, and politics change.  Harvard reports a record low number of students seeking jobs in “social change,” which they define as government or nonprofit work.

Many use the expression that if they had a dollar for every time something or another happened, they would be rich.  I would say that if every organizer when leaving our staff over the years told me that they were going to law school, so that they could back and help the organization in a different way, actually did so, I wouldn’t know where to put them all.  Certainly, back in the day, we had lawyers on staff in one way or another for almost the entire 38 years I was Chief Organizer of ACORN in the United States, but I only had one, who actually came back.

I was talking to Doug Young, the lawyer for all of our family of organizations, recently.  He’s been a lawyer based in Austin, Texas for decades, but he started first as an ACORN organizer in Fort Worth, and then later as a Local 100 organizer in Shreveport, so he had worked our whole waterfront before leaving to work for SEIU on the Beverly campaign, and then going to law school at UT.  I don’t remember him being so detail-oriented and meticulous in his work and writing when he was on the streets for us, but he has become for us – and many others – top drawer, best-in-class.  I have asked him for advice and help on everything from NLRB work to leases to FCC matters to sensitive organizational and internal matters, and he has never said “No” or left me hanging, usually without charging us a dime.  In my transition from ACORN in the US sixteen years ago, he gave me pivotal advice on whether “bricks and sticks” were more important for me to retain than people and organizations, which made my choices obvious. It was a pleasure to hear him reminisce about strikes he handled for garbage workers for us in Shreveport or strikes and bargaining for Wells Fargo drivers with an independent union in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, as well as other organizing experiences with us.  It made me feel less like I had been exploiting him for decades and more like he was giving back in a labor of love as well.

The Knights of Labor, one of the earliest US broad-based labor federations, used to exclude from their membership both bankers and lawyers.  They had good reason, and that principle probably should have survived the test of time.  An exception would be made for Doug Young though, along with the wish that there were hundreds and thousands more like him around the country and the world, because that’s what we need.  ACORN’s family of organizations and me were just lucky, one organizer did come back to us as a lawyer, and that was Doug.