Planting People, Growing Justice: The Role of the New Social Justice Lawyer?

Artika Renee Tyner, University of St. Thomas, Minnesota


The process of social change draws upon the strength of many individuals to build a strong collective, develop a shared vision, exercise the power required to necessitate change, and join forces in solidarity. This study examined the role of one particular group in this process, lawyers, by identifying their leadership characteristics and exploring the tools they use to build and sustain social change. These attributes add a new dimension to scholarly research in the field by focusing on the role of lawyers as leaders as they seek to influence processes of social change, transform systems, and empower others to lead. This study draws upon principles of social justice lawyering which acknowledge that lawyers have a fiduciary duty to create equal justice under the law. It combines these frameworks with leadership theoretical perspectives since there is a dearth of research available on the role of lawyers as leaders in the context of social change. Another framework that informs this new type of lawyering is public policy advocacy. The combination of social justice lawyering practices, leadership skills, and public policy advocacy is referenced in this study as the ―three pillars‖ of new social justice lawyering.

This heuristic comparative case study explored the leadership skills exhibited by the four selected research participants and the tools they contribute to the community‘s effort of effectuating social justice and social change. The data collection process included interviewing these case study participants, observing each participant in a community setting, and reviewing a representative selection of each participant‘s publications. The collected data was analyzed through a qualitative lens which was influenced by grounded theory. Each case study built upon the knowledge in the area of key skills and competencies utilized by the participants. These methodological frameworks informed the phenomenological inquiry related to the leadership qualities and tools used by four lawyers who are redefining effective social justice efforts during the process of social change.

An analysis of the data shows that these unique individuals have strong leadership skills including: 1) stewardship of influence; 2) moral imagination; 3) foresight and vision; 4) leading from the heart; and 5) empowering others. The tools they use to build and sustain social change are: 1) analyzing laws and policies; 2) developing new theories and frameworks; 3) writing as advocacy; 4) establishing social justice-oriented organizations; 5) fostering key partnerships and engaging in coalition-building; and 6) providing community education. The findings of this study will inform the development and adoption of leadership curricula in law schools and the creation of a learning community for new social justice lawyers.