How Lawyers Can Be Good Allies: A Strategic Engagement Conference

This is a guest post by Kelly Dermody, Managing Partner of Lieff Cabraser’s San Francisco office and chair of the firm’s employment practice group.

Around 4:00 a.m. on November 9, I knew something fundamentally had changed. Our civic institutions, impartial judiciary, fair elections, and rule of law had been openly mocked and undermined.

Entire communities – Muslims, Latino Americans and Mexicans, African Americans, LGBTQ people, Americans with disabilities, and women – had been targets of demeaning slurs during national political discourse, and this had not been repudiated.

Over the course of the first week after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded nearly 500 incidents of intimidation targeting people of color, Muslims, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and women.

But I knew that we were not powerless. Disenfranchised communities have always faced threats and backlash. We couldn’t curl up and hide now, especially those of us with the power and access of the legal system, education, documentation, and/or economic advantage. Something had to be done for more vulnerable people and communities.

A week after the election, the fragments of a plan started to come together.  What if civil rights and social justice community leaders could inform the legal community about what they were anticipating and tell the legal community how to be a good ally?

Rather than lawyers running out to reinvent programs that community groups are already doing well, we would support and empower communities to lead in protecting themselves.

My law firm, Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, was immediately supportive.  The firm was willing to host a series of talks with community leaders and those in the bar interested in helping.

Without giving it much more thought, on November 15, 2016, I announced this idea in a Facebook group. Within 48 hours, I had nearly 500 comments asking to get involved and even more “likes.”  The idea was resonating.

I reached out to two people I respect and trust completely, Yolanda Jackson (Executive Director of the Bar Association of San Francisco) and Kate Kendell (Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights), and they immediately joined as full collaborators.

Kate had all variety of questions and feedback on what could be leveraged for the non-profit community from legal professionals, and Yolanda offered the full support of the SF Bar (with its amazing staff), including handling registration and CLE, and all variety of program marketing. My firm’s marketing staff jumped in to create content and websites for the event. Kate got us a venue with a date, and we were off.

Having passed only the 6-week mark since this idea was just a Facebook status, with several of those weeks falling on major holidays, it is inspiring to see what the community has come together to do.

Over 40 non-profit groups have informed us that they will be participating, by presenting, sending staff/stakeholders, and/or leading working groups that will follow the conference.  Many of the organizations have worked together for years; others have never worked with any other organization at this conference.

There is an excitement building about people outside the civil rights community getting to activate their concern in strategic and impactful ways. There is excitement within the civil rights community, coming together across silos and endless, under-resourced fire drills, to forge more powerful alliances and collaborations of their own.

And you know it is going to be a truly special day when you will be sharing lunch with Charles Blow, Dahlia Lithwick, and Rashad Robinson, and will get to close your day with the Rev. Dr. William Barber, a moral leader of this moment.

This is the America I was looking for on November 9. Our America believes in the basic decency of people, celebrates diversity and inclusion, and respects fair institutions that work for all of us. Our America is worth fighting for.

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“How to Be a Good Ally: A Strategic Engagement Conference” is on Friday, January 6, 2017, at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with reception to follow. Join the Facebook event and register for the conference.

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