Firstly, Ben Hoffman and Marissa Vahsling discuss this as a live issue in the context of transnational legal work, in their article “Collaborative Lawyering in Transnational Human Rights Advocacy“. They state at 266:
“We begin with the premise then that differing goals between the community and the human rights advocate are an inherent part of the lawyer-community relationship in the transnational human rights context. It follows that a human rights lawyer is not always going to be able to be “on tap,” waiting to serve whatever goal the community chooses in a given moment…
The lawyer instead looks to work with the community and support a shared vision of justice. We believe that identifying and seeking this shared vision of justice, beyond any abstract notion of empowerment, is the principal goal of the collaborative human rights lawyer through the representation—and the end to which the lawyer owes ultimate allegiance. The lawyer looks for collaboration with the community in pursuing a shared goal that is, necessarily, jointly informed by the lawyer’s own vision of social change.”
The authors met this challenge by, among other things, aiming to work collaboratively with their clients to “identif[y] and operationali[ze], a shared vision” of justice (at p 265). The development and drafting of the retainer (at pp 270-272), for example, was one of the opportunities that the authors identified to put this into practice.
I was then reminded of this question in a very different place: at the Guggenheim Museum exhibition of On Konwara‘s work titled “Silence“. Konwara was a conceptual artist who was known for systematically documented the passing of time, the movement of history, through concise, daily rituals. One of his pieces, the Today series, was a series of about 100 paintings of the date starting from 4 January 1966 and ending close to his death in 2014. Each painting was exhibited with a box (in which it was stored when not exhibited) lined with a newspaper clipping from that date.
One box in particular struck me. On 4 March 1970, the New York Post contained an articled titled “N.J. Lawyer Fights Way Past Panther“.
The article commenced:
“The defence attorney for three Black Panthers accused of machine-gunning a Jersey City police station today tangled with three other Panthers who tried to bar him from the courtroom because he wasn’t conducting the trial in a political manner.”
The trial was that of Black Panther leaders Isaiah Rowley, Victor Perez, Charles Hicks, and the defence attorney was Raymond A. Brown, who was assisting in the matter pro bono due to the “principles of justice involved“. After a brief “fracas” Brown’s response was:
“Look, if you want this to be a political trial, talk to the [defendants]… They can spend the rest of their lives in jail if they’re convicted, and if you try to create a political trial in Jersey City you’re committing suicide.”
The three defendants eventually pleaded guilty to lesser charges and were sentenced.
Although far removed from this time and place, the story raises many interesting questions relevant today. Where is the line between politics and law drawn in our casework? Who draws it, and where should it be drawn? At what point does the interest of the individual client(s) extend to a community or group? Does it? Should it? And whose influence shapes the ideas of the “client’s best interests”, the “public interest”, and “justice” underlying each legal case?