In law school, back in the early 1970s, my interests quickly gravitated to poverty law, public-interest law, and prisoners' rights.
This turn was driven by two events. As an undergraduate at Syracuse University, I had spent a semester studying in Italy. Seeing the United States from an outside perspective provided me with an opportunity to more critically observe the existence of widespread poverty in the wealthiest nation in the world.
Then, during my first week at Syracuse University College of Law in 1971, the Attica prison rebellion began. Within months, I would get to meet directly and through correspondence the men who survived the retaking of the prison. I would come to know them as human beings crying out to be treated as such.
Recently, while cleaning out my basement, I found a sagging cardboard box filled with old books and articles, including the Spring 1974 issue of the Maxwell Review, a Syracuse University publication. I had only a dim memory of an article that I had collaborated on for this journal as a third-year law student. Leafing through the pages made me think about my journey.
This particular issue of the Maxwell Review focused on social science and public morality. The article I co-wrote, with a Ph.D. candidate in social science, was "The Psychological Prison: Neither Freedom Nor Dignity."
Fond memories flowed as I read, remembering how we had, as young students, grappled with the subject of prisons from each of our academic backgrounds. Ever so vaguely I remembered our wide-eyed talk about the dream of a policy center that addressed social issues using the tools of many disciplines.
I began my legal career at a nonprofit Neighborhood Legal Services office in Syracuse, N.Y. For two years, I worked at this community law office and learned about the legal issues that confront America's poor, including family law, landlord-tenant law, and public-benefits law. It was a wonderful experience. In this setting I learned the joy of helping others solve problems and gain access to justice. It was that experience that made me the lawyer that I am today.
I left Legal Services to establish a small private practice in Syracuse with several other young lawyers. My reasons for departing were twofold. I was starting a family, and the salary limitations were a real concern. Even more significant was my desire to escape some of the restrictions imposed upon litigation undertaken by legal-services lawyers.
I remained in private practice for more than two decades. Our law practice provided our clients with a full array of legal service; my areas of expertise were criminal defense and civil rights. Between trials I did my share of house closings, wills, adoptions, and incorporations. Along the way I did well enough financially to renovate our offices and buy myself an oversize three-sided mahogany desk. Sitting there behind my desk looking out of a wall of windows, I felt like I had "made it."
For years I served as ad hoc counsel for the Center for Community Alternatives and also participated on its Board of Directors. The center is a private nonprofit organization with offices in Syracuse, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, N.Y. It promotes successful re-entry and reintegration back into the community after a person has been involved with the criminal-justice system, and it works for a reduced reliance on incarceration through advocacy, services, and public-policy development in pursuit of civil and human rights.
In 2000 I closed the doors to my law firm. I had saved enough money to put both of my sons through college, a goal I had set for myself when my first son was born. With that out of the way and only a modest mortgage payment left to worry about, it was time for new challenges.
A longtime friend was the executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives. We talked about creating a position and a division of CCA, Justice Strategies, that would focus on research, policy, training, and evaluation. The concept was intriguing. I signed on nine years ago and rejoined the nonprofit world.
I have no regrets. I did have to trade in my big desk. It was too big to fit in the tiny room that I was told was my office. The one small window was so high up that I had to stand on my chair to look out at the alley below.
Certainly there were adjustments in addition to the small office and the normal-size desk. Gone was the world of support staff, secretaries, paralegals, and associates. I went from being the boss to being part of a team. This was an entirely new stage upon which to perform. Success is not measured by winning cases, but by change systemwide.
With hindsight, it is easier to answer the question of why I made this shift. At the time it was much less clear. My reasons at the time were certainly more intuitive than well thought out. I had grown weary of simply trying cases while the system remained the same. I had gone to law school to learn how to use the tools of lawyering to solve problems. Over time I had become more absorbed in being a lawyer than in using the tools to help others.
As corny as it may seem, I took Canon 8 of the New York Lawyer's Code of Professional Responsibility to heart. Canon 8 calls upon lawyers to assist in improving the legal system — to recognize deficiencies in the legal system and to initiate corrective measures. In my view, the criminal-justice system is an abysmal failure. The position of director of Justice Strategies at the center presented the opportunity to try to do something about it.
My job at the center has given me a chance to step back and see what is going on in the lives of people being processed through the criminal-justice system. Instead of just handling a case, I get to look at the person and the system that affects their lives. As a practicing lawyer, on the day the judge imposed the sentence in a criminal case, the file was closed. Today I reopen those files. In many instances the collateral consequences of a criminal proceeding are more devastating than the sentence itself.
A typical case involved a 30-year-old single parent named Sarah. As a teenager, Sarah had been arrested on a larceny charge. She was granted youthful-offender status, and her record was supposed to be sealed. She learned her lesson and moved on with her life. At 30 she had been trained as a licensed practical nurse.
Unfortunately, due to a clerical error, her record was never sealed. She was fired from her job when the record check was completed. We were able to trace back the record-keeping error, seal the record, and get her her job back.
The challenge of serving individual clients has turned into the challenge of a larger social responsibility. For some that may be invigorating, and for others it may be withering.
I now work in an office where staff members from many different disciplines work to promote a more just and humane criminaland juvenile-justice system. Some of my fellow staff members have Ph.D.'s; others have served more than three decades in prison. We have clinicians working side by side with people whose life experience is the very credential that makes our work successful.
I have traded in my big desk for the challenge of big public-policy issues. And if I ever need to feel the importance of that big desk, I simply walk into the office of our executive director. There, behind my big old desk, sits the co-author of that article we wrote more than 35 years ago, when we dreamed about taking on the burning social issues of the day with the multidisciplinary approaches of a vibrant center staffed with dedicated people.
Alan Rosenthal is director of Justice Strategies at the Center for Community Alternatives, in Syracuse, N.Y.