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Sharing an Attorney’s Thoughtful Reflection on the Tragic Events of this Past Week…

Posted By Paul Floyd, Tuesday, July 12, 2016

During this past week, social media forums have been inundated with personal reflections on and reactions to the tragic shooting deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota, Alton B. Sterling in Louisiana, and the five police officers in Texas. As the president of the HCBA, I am particularly attuned to ways that lawyers and others in the legal profession can work to achieve social justice.    

Among the postings on the APRL (the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers) message board, one stood out to me. It was from Mary Grace Guzman, an ethics lawyer in California. I think Ms. Guzman’s post captures, both personally and professionally, many of the hopes, dreams, and desires of us lawyers, no matter where we practice law (in public service, corporations, law firms and non-profit organizations). Ms. Guzman has graciously allowed me to repost it.

Her introductory message is followed by her original post from her personal Facebook page.   

Hi All, 

I wrote this on Friday for my personal Facebook page. I wanted to share with you, as I believe that it explains how race and ethics overlap. 

A little personal background on myself, and how I came to be an attorney. I am a first generation everything, meaning my father is a Mexican immigrant, I am the first female to attend a 4 year college and the first lawyer in the family. My father legally immigrated from Mexico when he was just 8 years old, he is a former gang member, Vietnam Vet, retired firefighter, OUR first college graduate and now a small business owner. My mother, Mexican-American, put all of us through college, my dad, my brothers and myself, setting aside her own dreams of education. I went to law school in 2004. At the time, I was a learning disabled single mother to a 3 year old little girl freshly diagnosed with epilepsy (now healthy and in remission). I share all of this very private information about myself to give you context with regard to my Facebook post, which was specifically on legal ethics, race and OUR justice system. I wrote this after spending much of Thursday in tears and shock by what had happened to the police officers and learning that, in addition to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, 4 Latino males had also been questionably shot and killed in traffic stops. 

From: Mary Grace Guzman

 

My Facebook Post from July 8th [2016]

"I have spent much of the day very upset about the state of affairs in OUR great country. I have felt helpless and overwhelmed with anger, fear and mostly sadness.

I write this from a unique position as being a woman of color with far more education than most women who look like me. I recognized the privilege that came with education and ran to this opportunity to become a lawyer and a member of OUR justice system. I know that my access to the justice system is far different from many others who look like me and different from my elders who made my position possible. So I never take my position for granted. When I took my oath to follow the laws of California and the Constitution of OUR United States, I secretly added an additional promise to use my privilege for good and not evil.

Now I sit in my office at the end of the day and I look at my client work and I wonder if I am doing enough to help change the status of OUR race relations in OUR country, in my community. I went to law school believing that I was going to fight for justice and pick a cause that would positively impact lives of the disadvantaged and change them for the better. I thought that I would work for a nonprofit or for some other social justice matter and make a difference. But instead, I fell in love with legal ethics, where I advise lawyers and law students about their legal matters. In many ways, I am in an ivory tower offering my thoughts on what is the ethical thing to do in order to advance my client's position. I have friends and clients who are "in the trenches" and I know that I don't want to do what they do. So I take phone calls and share what I think is ethical. 

Yet as an ethicist, I wonder am I doing enough to cause change? 

I don't know the answer to this question. I don't know the answer to how to stop this madness, hatred, fear and all the -isms that are leading to the violence that we have seen recently. What I can say is that I have worked with attorneys from all walks of life and their voice, life experience, and worldview directly impact justice and how justice is served. Justice is a slow process and painful as hell to change but without a diverse group of lawyers from all walks of life, justice cannot be properly served.

So reflecting on my practice, I think about my law student applicants trying to get their license to practice law. These clients have reformed their lives for a shot at furthering justice. My clients are recovering addicts, former homeless, reformed prostitutes, ex-convicts, and the list goes on. I love when I get to tell them that they get to become a lawyer, partly because their success is my success, but mostly because their life experience becomes a part of the diaspora of OUR legal community. They will carry their personal history into OUR justice system and God willing their personal history will help shape justice for someone else in need. 

My note is not a self-congratulatory piece; rather it is a call to my fellow attorney friends. If your practice is not Social Justice based, or if it is, please put time and effort into supporting someone, anyone who wants to join OUR club but may not have the superficial credentials to be a lawyer. I didn't fit the mold--a learning disabled single mother of color with toddler with epilepsy. I had many people tell me that I couldn't join the club, but I am forever in debt to ones who dared me to dream and invited me to the table. 

My only solution to what we are seeing right now is to help bring more people who are disenfranchised into OUR profession. To mentor OUR youth and encourage them to dream, and tell them that they have a place at the table, if they wish. It is not enough to teach OUR children of color how to behave with police officers. Rather we need to teach OUR children that they can be police officers too, that they can be judges and their voice matters and is essential to OUR justice and without their voice in OUR justice system we will not have real justice."

 

After reading Ms. Guzman’s post, I felt hope and encouragement. I could relate to her being the first in her family to become a lawyer and her promise to use her privilege for good and not evil. I also agree that real change can happen from within the system, as well as outside of it.

To continue the conversation, I recommend the July-August issue of The Hennepin Lawyer, which focuses on criminal law and justice. The issue highlights how judges, attorneys, and others in the court system and beyond are dealing with issues related to race and community justice.


 

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