The Lawyer is Not the Protagonist: Community Campaigns, Law, and Social Change

15 Pages Posted: 12 Dec 2007 Last revised: 27 Feb 2011

See all articles by Jennifer Gordon

Jennifer Gordon

Fordham University School of Law

Date Written: February 24, 2011


In the conventional narrative about the role of law in social change, lawyers are the protagonists. A social problem exists and a group or individual calls on a lawyer to do something about it. The lawyer explores various possibilities, decides on a course of action together with her client, and proceeds. The legal strategy either wins, in which case the story is a successful one, or loses, in which case it failed.

In this concluding essay to the California Law Review's symposium volume on Race, Economic Justice and Community Lawyering, I offer an alternative narrative, reflecting on the symposium's articles, which describe a series of recent campaigns for racial and economic justice undertaken by community organizations and coalitions. In these campaigns, attorneys appear as supporting players rather than main characters, seeking to help organizations build the capacity and the power to make change. Such lawyers draw their strategies from the usual legal toolbag: education about rights, litigation, engagement with regulatory processes involving various federal, state, and municipal agencies and entities, transactional and legislative work. But their core questions are different ones. They are not asking what legal levers can fix this problem, but how can legal levers put the group in a position to achieve its goals? Taken together, I argue, these stories suggest a promising vision for the role of lawyers in today's community-based battles for justice.

Suggested Citation

Gordon, Jennifer, The Lawyer is Not the Protagonist: Community Campaigns, Law, and Social Change (February 24, 2011). California Law Review, Vol. 95, No. 2133, 2007, Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1070062, NYLS Clinical Research Institute Paper No. 07/08-25, Available at SSRN:

Jennifer Gordon (Contact Author)

Fordham University School of Law ( email )

140 West 62nd Street
New York, NY 10023
United States
212-636-7444 (Phone)
212-636-6899 (Fax)

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