Small Revolutionary Acts

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Heroes / Repairing the System

How does social reform happen?  History books tend to portray social reform as a tidal wave  that sweeps away an unjust and obsolete status quo, but I think reform is better understood as the  cumulative result of  individual acts of opposition to concrete injustices people encounter in their own lives. Only with hindsight can we  assess the importance of any one action. Even  an idle question posed  in a conversation between old friends might turn out to have been essential to success.

Jack B.Weinstein is a very experienced and highly respected Senior Judge in the federal distric tcourt in Brooklyn   He recently issued an unusual  “rule” for proceedings  in his courtroom. It states that junior members of litigation teams “are invited to argue motions they have helped prepare and to question witnesses with whom they have worked.”

The rule is Weinstein’s response to years of  watching  senior partners (usually male) pause during argument to confer with  a younger lawyer (often female) better informed on the issue in question.  Up to now Weinstein had taken informal steps to  encourage participation by younger lawyers, but it was a chance comment he made at lunch with a friend that led him to issue his rule.

His luncheon companion happened to be his former colleague Sara Scheindlin, recently retired from the Brooklyn federal disrict court.  As he sat down Weinstein greeted Scheindlin with the question he always asks when they meet– “What good are you doing in the world these days?”  I imagine the question was spoken in an ironic tone,  an inside joke between professionals who know well from experience how difficult it can be to “do good” in our complex legal  world.

But this time Judge Scheindlin gave a straight answer to Weistein’s question;  she replied  that she had just worked on a New York Bar Association report that had documented how few women lawyers  were  actually arguing in court cases that they had taken the major role in preparing. Since the report’s findings agreed with Weinstein’s own experience,  he asked what he could do to help.  Scheindlin  replied, “You could amend your individual rules”  And he did just that.

Of course, amending   the procedures in one court is a rather modest reform, but Scheindlin knew that Weinstein’s action might have effects well beyond his courtoom.   Weinstein is  a member of law’s aristocracy;  when he speaks, people listen– people like Alan Feuer  of the New York Times who wrote this interesting article on Weintein’s new rule. https:

Now self-appointed consciences of the profession like me will alert concerned citizens like you who may spread the alarm.  My prediction is that slowly large firms will be forced to change their ways. The best  job candidates will inquire about what steps firms are taking to give juniors courtroom experience, and  clients will also demand reform.  Large corporations like Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, and Facebook have already demanded that the firms who represent them field a diverse team of lawyers. Young male associates as well as female will benefit since it would be impolitic, if not illegal, to favor young women over young men.

If we take a larger historical perspective, we  can see  Scheindlin and Weinstein’s  lunch conversation as part of the history of the  women’s rights revolution. And a lot of people should get some credit,– whoever thought up the idea of the bar association report for one, but also Scheindlin and Weinstein,  Feuer, (and maybe even you and me). The  reform will have been  the result of  thousands or millions of  small  “revolutionary”  acts taken  over time that happened to change the future.

So the  next time you lunch with  colleagues why not ask them (in an ironic tone) “What good are you doing in the world these days ?”  You never know  what will happen next.

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