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Activism and your legal career


There isn’t a region in these United States that has avoided the reach of political activism in the form of protests and demonstrations.

Law students across the country wrestle with the pros and cons of participating as activists because those actions may carry life-changing consequences. Passing the character and fitness portion of the bar exam is just one of many concerns for students when it comes to participating in a public display of their personal opinions on hot-button topics.

So what should you consider as you decide if your political and social activism is something you put on their resume? Here’s some friendly advice from lawyers and professors with some experience on the topic.

Beliefs v. brand

Larry Stybel, co-founder of Stybel Peadbody and Associates, a legal search firm in Boston, suggested you be strategic when deciding what causes to support and how to show your support.

“The first thing to know is that there’s your personal belief and there’s your professional brand,” said Stybel. “If you’re going to be politically active, it must support your brand.

Stybel warned that if your personal beliefs aren’t the same as your or your employer’s brand, it’s best to not be too loud with political involvement because that could be a professional risk not worth taking. “The trick is to give to your causes in a way that benefits your professional brand,” said Stybel. “If the cause doesn’t help your brand, you can still give to it quietly.”

One more note: “Once you pass the bar, you’re never speaking for yourself again,” noted Stybel. “You’re always gong to be known as a lawyer, and your comments and actions need to be seasoned with that in mind.”

Your job? Get involved

Although Stybel recommends a private showing of support for causes that don’t match your brand, other attorneys encourage a more active role in the political sphere. Paul Saputo, the founder and principal criminal lawyer at the Saputo Law Firm in Dallas, is one of those attorneys.

At a protest in July, the Dallas Police Department suffered a horrifying attack by a sniper that killed multiple officers. In the panic, the department and the media identified the wrong suspect and made an innocent man essentially the most wanted man in America. Saputo represented that man in court because he strongly believes in a duty that lawyers have to be community leaders.

“I think that where the law profession is failing right now is in lawyers not being leaders in protest movements or politics in general,” stated Saputo. “I believe that lawyers have an ethical obligation to be the rational, wise, and kind voice in political and social movements, and we need to be on the front lines.”

Saputo also warned against letting societal pressures shape your political action. “Any official discouraging lawyers from political and social involvement is failing the bar because they’re allowing lawyers to be uninvolved,” Saputo said. “During the time of our founding fathers, lawyers used to be leaders in politics and social movements. Now there are so many people in the profession who need to step up.”

It’s all on the record

One thing Stybel and Saputo agree on is that law students and lawyers alike need to monitor their words and actions in a way that sheds a positive light on the legal profession.

If you’re very passionate about something, you should avoid speaking in absolutes because it can reflect poorly on the profession, contended Stybel. “It’s important to speak about controversial topics in lawyerly terms,” he advised. “Free speech is an important constitutional right, but we have to weigh the pros and cons of our actions in this profession.”

Saputo offered similar advice. “I think the way to protest is to act as if you were in court and to treat the press and other protesters as you would if everything were on the record,” he recommended. “Be careful with the words you use. They need to be the same words you’d use in front of a judge, the ethics board, and your family.”

Lawyers are always expected to act with the dignity of an officer of the court—no exceptions.

A lawyer’s duty is to act in a way that shows the legal profession as experts in the areas they choose to address, according to Saputo. If you’re socially and politically active, you must remember that you’ll be regarded as a role model for other community members.

Both Stybel and Saputo agreed on another point: A lawyer is a lawyer at all times, and lawyers are always expected to act with the dignity of an officer of the court—no exceptions.

Weigh your role

One big factor to consider in your activism, according to Stybel and Saputo, is the possible alienation of clients and employers who may not agree with your stance on certain issues.

“By choosing to participate in protests and demonstrations, law students are taking the same risks everyone else is taking,” stated Saputo. “Violence and disappointing or upsetting loved ones are just a few of those risks.”

Law students are also taking two major risks specific to the profession. “It’s important to recognize you may lose a job or client opportunity over a particular political stance,” added Saputo. “Furthermore, if you’re not careful with your words, you may risk professional ethics consequences as well.”

Stybel agrees. “You have to realize that the legal professional is a community business,” he said. “If your beliefs don’t line up with the community you serve, you could hurt your community relationships for both you and your firm.”

But there are benefits to political involvement, too. “The benefits law students can gain from participating in protests is that the networks that you’d become part of can be professionally rewarding,” stated Saputo. “I think there’s a personal reward to gain as well. Being able to look at yourself in the mirror and to know you’ve done everything you could is more important than having a good job. It’s important for a lawyer’s self-worth and identity as an individual.”

You may also convince someone to hire you. “As hiring managers, we often believe that people who have strong opinions about political topics often have strong opinions in other areas as well, and that can be a good thing,” said Stybel. “Being able to articulate a stance in a thoroughly thought out way is something lawyers respect, and that can foster personal and business relationships.”

LYNAE TUCKER is the student editor of Student Lawyer and a second-year student at University of South Dakota School of Law in Vermillion.

Lynae Tucker Lynae Tucker is a former Student Editor for Student Lawyer Magazine, She is a J.D. candidate at the University of South Dakota and recieved her Communications and Media degree from DePaul University. She hopes to pursue an LLM in Employment law post-graduation. She gained experience in television, radio and print media through student media and philanthropy work.