A Student Perspective on Crisis Lawyering

Insight December 8, 2021

As a law student, it is easy to find myself in challenging situations. Coming from a family where I am the first to go to college and become a member of a “learned profession,” I put a lot of pressure and mental strain on myself to succeed. Completing my first year of law school on Zoom did not lighten this strain. However, after emerging from my first year intact, I now have the privilege to reflect on a central conclusion: that a lot of what feels like crisis—most of this pressure—is of my own making.

But, what if the crisis is not entirely internal or within my control? What do I do then? Many students endure abrupt external crises—whether it be family obligations, discrimination or harassment, public health threats, or otherwise.Thankfully, the Center on the Legal Profession’s recent symposium, “Crisis Lawyering: Legal Practice in the New Normal,” provides one way to begin answering that question in a robust, analytical manner.

The first panel of the symposium, “From the Front Lines: Case Studies in Crisis Lawyering” featured a discussion between “crisis lawyers” and a corporate executive. These speakers, Tom Balint, Beatrice Lindstrom, Ralph Martin II, and Jacob Silverman all provided vivid guideposts for how crisis lawyers, and the broader community, can overcome truly unprecedented, novel situations. After reflecting on the panelists’ stories and guidance, there are three lessons that I will add to my own toolbox.

1. Build a discrete set of central, organizing principles. Ralph Martin, general counsel of Northeastern University, in his remarks, called this his “touchstones.” Many of the panelists converged upon the need for crisis lawyers to respond by first identifying top-line priorities, around which we can organize a crisis response. For Martin, recounting his experience overseeing Northeastern University’s COVID-19 response, this touchstone was prioritizing safety. Meanwhile, perhaps a law student’s touchstone can be their own mental health or well-being, or keeping in touch with family and friends. A crisis situation will always be in flux and provide novel challenges; having these key principles will at least help crisis lawyers cut through some of the confusion.

2. Understand the diverse ecosystem of the crisis. Crises may have varying effects on different stakeholders and an unfamiliar context. In practice, this means that lawyers who respond to crises will have to work with a host of constituencies, some of whom will be non-lawyers. This context-specific nature of the crisis necessitates having genuine dialogue with all stakeholders involved to understand what course of action must be taken. As Director of Emergency Management in the U.S. Department of the Interior Tom Balint impressed upon the audience: crisis lawyers must resist the temptation to give simple, yes-no answers. Instead, crisis lawyers need to engage in full dialogue with their interlocutors to build the most effective strategy for the crisis at hand.

3. Be adaptable. Beatrice Lindstrom, Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, recounted her battle against the United Nations to seek justice for the people of Haiti afflicted by cholera. In this years-long fight, Lindstrom needed to use non-legal skills in her toolbox, such as grassroots community organizing and press/public relations, to seek justice for her clients. When crisis lawyers are confronted with a novel set of challenges, the moment demands the application of a novel set of solutions.

Having these three lessons—touchstones, ecosystem, adaptability—in mind when responding to crises can help any lawyer, law student, or community member begin to respond effectively to crises. And perhaps as law students, that is what some of our time in law school is already instilling in us, whether explicitly or implicitly. For instance, we already know how to formulate the “touchstones” of the cases that we analyze by identifying and evaluating their underlying policy rationales. Using these same critical thinking skills, we can take stock of any crisis and identify our top-line priorities. Likewise, the wealth of educational and experiential opportunities at our disposal allows us to understand a diversity of perspectives and gain new skills to become more adaptable. In my case, one of my first-year professors instilled in me the need to break out of my comfort zone, encouraging me to take deeply-unfamiliar classes like corporations and taxation. This advice has opened up a whole new world to me, and now—much to my own surprise—I am relishing the opportunity to take an accounting course next semester! Breaking out of my comfort zone and hearing more perspectives allows me to be more adaptable, and ultimately, to be a better lawyer and hopefully, a better crisis lawyer.

Daniel Eyal is a 3L at Harvard Law School and was a CLP Student Fellow. During the course of his fellowship, he will explored the questions that arise for law students and early career lawyers interested in career paths in federal prosecution and white collar criminal defense.