Crowdsourcing Justice, and Other New Looks in Legal Leadership

Posted On July 11, 2017 by Charles McNair

Envision a leader.

For most people, a single, forceful individual comes to mind, a powerfully principled figure with absolute commitment, moral authority, charisma. He or she blazes a meteoric trail, inspiring and compelling others to follow.

Think Gandhi. Susan B. Anthony. Martin Luther King Jr. Abraham Lincoln.

That’s the model, historically. But now consider the changing look of 21st-century legal leadership.

In January, President Trump issued an executive order that banned travel into the United States from seven predominantly Muslim nations. Immediately, a quiet army of nameless, faceless immigration lawyers went to work to support affected people.

They posted on social media and texted one another. Some jumped in cars and headed to airports. Others called media and contacted various nonprofits (American Civil Liberties Union, Raksha, American Immigration Lawyers Association, etc.). Attorneys who didn’t practice immigration law as a specialty volunteered services to colleagues. Websites popped up. Families and friends got involved, and phones of politicians rang.

Within days, immigration attorneys led by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) appeared on news networks to threaten a sit-in. Thousands of citizens mobbed airports across the United States waving homemade signs and protesting.

“Here’s the fascinating thing,” said Carolina Antonini (J.D. ’96), partner at Antonini & Cohen, an immigration defense firm in Atlanta, and adjunct professor at Georgia State Law. “This scenario played out in very similar forms across the country. Immigration attorneys instinctively did the same things and subsequently organized. It was an impromptu action that ended up looking very coordinated … and it resulted in coordinated efforts.”

Carolina Antonini

Carolina Antonini (J.D. ’96)

Coordinated, effective efforts.

Just days after the groundswell, federal judges at opposite geographic ends of the nation, Hawaii and Maryland, declared that President Trump’s executive order violated the U.S. Constitution. Leadership, in this case, rose collectively — a crowdsourcing of justice.

A moral obligation to lead

What — exactly — compelled the actions of so many lawyers working with no playbook and no iconic leader? Antonini feels that, in a society based on laws and justice, individual lawyers have a moral obligation to lead.

“The question really is not whether lawyers should lead. The answer there is always affirmative,” Antonini said. “The question is, ‘What are the leadership roles for a lawyer?’

“The range is immense,” she continued. “Lead by example. Lead in the change of an unfair law. Lead to fill a void in the law. Lead your church into a just cause. Lead society toward a vision. Serve in government. Run for elected office. Educate those around you. Educate your judge. Learn. You cannot carry the scales of justice only from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. Lawyering is not just a job. Every lawyer must lead.”

More than in any other profession, arguably, lawyers are particularly well positioned for roles of leadership. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of governmental leadership is and historically has been made up of people trained in the law. Why? Three primary reasons: •

Historical legacy.  The United States as a nation was primarily framed and designed to serve two jurisprudence principles: the rule of law and the sanctity of the Constitution.

Social roles.  A nation based on rule of law and constitutional sanctity has evolved a complex society where statute, case law and the common law intersect. The system is sophisticated, and it can be difficult to navigate. With their professional insights, attorneys find themselves naturally suited to help communities and individuals navigate legal and social mazes.

Trust.  The legal profession places attorneys in positions of trust and intimacy. People entrust lawyers with extremely personal, important issues. Lawyers help solve their problems, and this naturally positions them as leaders.

“It is the combination of our historical legacy, our social role and our knowledge of the system that makes us fit to lead,” said Antonini.

Leading from behind

Beth Littrell (J.D. ’01) is a civil rights attorney for Lambda Legal, a nonprofit firm that seeks legal reform primarily through public policy work and impact litigation. She represents clients in LGBTQ cases, and she sees clear evidence in her field of nontraditional leadership.

“The LGBTQ and HIV movement,” she said, “is a less personality-driven, more diffuse and more collaborative effort.”

Littrell cites marriage equality as an example. “The leaders and architects of marriage equality are the largely unrecognized lawyers for Lambda Legal, GLAD, ACLU and NCLR,” she said. “I refer to them as ‘movement lawyers,’ working for the past decade and longer to expose the injustice of marriage bans and the illegitimacy of the presumptions that supported them.”

Beth Littrell

Beth Littrell (J.D. ’01)

Littrell points out that prior to Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that struck down same-sex marriage bans nationwide, four previous cases rose to the Supreme Court. Brilliant legal teams engaged in each. Lawyers also fought dozens of cases on the periphery that helped shape the Supreme Court’s decision.

“For every lawyer whose name was mentioned in the media, there were dozens more who contributed to the result,” Littrell said.

It’s a clear change in the leadership paradigm. “What’s been successful in LGBTQ leadership is having many different thought leaders who work loosely but collaboratively to lead the movement in the direction of change. It’s a model of leadership that works.

“I’ve seen it firsthand in the LGBTQ movement,” Littrell continued. “And look at the Black Lives Matter and DREAMer movements. You can call out certain people, but the leadership is much more collaborative. It’s almost a movement led from behind.”

Justice à la carte

Some attorneys lead by making justice more accessible.

In 2015, Shelia Manely (J.D. ’13) and Michael Manely (J.D. ’89) launched the Justice Café out of their family law practice to address the legal needs of people with low or moderate income. The Justice Café provides clients with low-cost, “unbundled” legal services. Like using the à la carte menu at a restaurant, everyday people choose from various attorney services at the price of $85 per hour. If clients can handle certain legal chores solo, they save money.


Shelia (J.D. ’13) and Michael Manely (J.D. ’89)

The benefits boomerang to the legal system too. The Justice Café has three locations in Georgia, where 75 attorneys have worked. Many started just out of law school. Eager for experience, they worked with Café clients and sharpened job skills, built resumes and quickly became hirable by more traditional firms.

Shelia Manely got the idea for the Justice Café in a 2012 Georgia State Law class taught by associate professor Bernadette Hartfield (now retired). A research project in barriers to justice revealed a gap in the law where sky-high legal fees made the system unaffordable for many people. Shelia and her husband felt strongly that a disenfranchising judiciary could one day be at risk itself — the rich would find their way around the law, and the poor would simply avoid the system due to expense.

“So we launched the Justice Café,” Michael said. “We did it because we believe that each and every person should have access to affordable, quality legal service. A small percentage of the population can easily afford to have a lawyer on call at all times, but most of us do not have that luxury.”

In its four years, the Café has served 2,750 clients. “The Justice Café may not fill the justice gap, but it makes a dent,” Shelia said.

In the case of judges

Where does the law today find bench leadership?

In the case of Phillip Jackson (J.D. ’89), associate judge with the Fulton County Juvenile Court in Atlanta, a quote from John Milton applies: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”


Judge Phillip Jackson (J.D. ’89)

“It is important for judges to take leadership roles because judges are the law-keepers,” said Jackson, who presides over dependency and delinquency cases. But it is a different type of leadership role.

“If judges lose their credibility,” he said, “people lose confidence and respect for the law. Judges lead by what they do … and what they don’t do.”
Jackson does community service and attends community meetings to understand concerns and needs. He has become known for interpreting law in the best interests of a child and for balancing rehabilitation with prevention and discipline.

“Good leadership in a judicial leader is the ability to be educated and then work behind the scenes educating others to influence changes that support or develop rehabilitation programs,” Jackson said.

Every lawyer a leader

Evolving leadership in law mirrors a prismatic society, where technology, a shrinking globe and shifting demographics today reorder traditions and social patterns. The law needs leadership as it, too, changes. So what kind of lawyer can be a leader? Antonini says it takes just one quality: “The will.”

Explaining further, she said, “It’s the desire to nurture both your practice and your community. The desire to make the world better, to initiate change. To inspire. Our commitment must be for daily outward and inward leadership and to promote justice on a small or large scale. “We as lawyers must look to our profession as a way of life, a calling, a purpose.

“And we get paid on top of that? It’s oh, so sweet.”

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