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On Tenth Anniversary, Is Rebellious Lawyering Conference an Institution?

With the arrival of its tenth anniversary, the Rebellious Lawyering conference, which attracts hundreds of students and activists to Yale Law School each year, seems to have become an institution.

But Steven Gunn, one of the conference's co-founders, says that's not exactly so: "It is and it isn't. Even though it's been going for ten straight years, it means different things to the students who develop it every year. And it really is a different experience each and every year, depending on ... the synergy of the panelists and the students and the organizers."

(Information about this year's conference is available at the Rebellious Lawyering conference website.)

Lori Mach, the other co-founder, recalls that before Rebellious Lawyering, there wasn't anything quite like it. "Steve and I felt that there were a lot of conferences at Yale Law School, covering great topics, but we felt like there wasn't anything that dealt with a broad range of public interest law." They decided to bring in speakers from all over the country, speakers who worked on a wide variety of issues and with a wide variety of client communities. Many of the topics they chose, according to Gunn, were "devoted to non-traditional legal representation of poor communities... That is to say, not your traditional litigation or even class action litigation work--community organizing, community economic development, labor organizing, environmental advocacy." Along with eight or ten other students, and a host of sponsoring student organizations, they planned out panels, invited speakers, and reached out to law students around the country who might want to attend.

Former YLS Dean Guido Calabresi delivered the opening address for the first Rebellious Lawyering conference. "I always like listening to Guido," says Gunn. "His message was to always look for allies, even in places you don't expect to find them, which I think was a message that fell on welcoming ears. Because if you're going to do this kind of work, then you really do have to try to build a broad base of support."

Mach and Gunn had gotten Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights and now a visiting lecturer at YLS, to give the keynote address. Says Mach, "Steve Gunn and I were worried, we didn't know how many people were coming. And that night of the keynote address it was basically standing room only; it was really phenomenal." Bright "challenged all of us to dedicate ourselves and our lives to public interest work--and in particular to do work where others aren't doing it or won't do it," recalls Gunn.

Many of the panels were on topics that remain relevant today, such as prisons, the criminal defense system, or environmental law. Some of the issues addressed at the first conference, though, were colored by the fact that it was held shortly after the 1994 elections, in which the Republican Party attained a majority in the House of Representatives and Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House. Says Gunn, "I think it's fair to say that the majority of the speakers and students saw that as a setback for the causes they were interested in promoting." But this helped establish a quality of the conference that remains today. "This has never been a conference where people get together and pat themselves on the back, but rather talk about the shortcomings in our approaches and better strategies that we ought to be using."

And, as Mach recalls, the whole enterprise was "a little on the bare bones side." She continues, "We were trying to do certain things on a very low budget, so one of our ideas was to have ... a pot luck. We asked for volunteers from the Law School, and it was amazing the amount of food we got. And the people who came to the conference loved it.... Everything was sort of informal, on the low budget side, but that went in with the whole theme [of the conference]."

Sometimes, the content of the panels and speeches was less important than the sense of community the conference fostered. "It was mostly a chance for people who wanted to do that kind of work to come and be around others who were doing it... and just feel that it was the right thing to do, get some affirmation," says Mach. Gunn describes what the conference was "meant to be" as "people re-energizing each other--because the work is hard and people are isolated while they're doing it...and then to have that energy and the passion to go back and keep doing it for another year."

Rebellious Lawyering has grown steadily since 1994. In 2003, it had over 400 attendees, and organizers expect at least as many this year. This year's iteration promises speeches, panels, workshops, and a film. Although, as Gunn points out, the specifics of the program change each year, something of the spirit of that inaugural conference remains. Rebellious Lawyering still brings students, activists, and lawyers together. It still covers a broad variety of topics. And it still seeks to re-energize its participants.

But Gunn points out that the spirit of Rebellious Lawyering is hard to pin down. "It's also an idea that's almost incapable of definition. What is rebellious lawyering? And I like that. And I resist the desire to define it in any way, because that would just further institutionalize it."

In 1994, Gunn organized a panel on Indian law, among other social justice topics. Mach focused on some of the panels that dealt with issues in criminal law. Today, they both are still working in the fields that motivated them ten years ago. Gunn is an associate professor of law at Washington University School of Law. He teaches Indian law now, and through the school's clinic does public interest work. He's currently involved in action on behalf of homeowners victimized by predatory lending schemes and the homeless of the city of St. Louis. Mach works in the public defender's office in Philadelphia. She now works on appellate cases, after several years as a trial lawyer.