Monday, January 28, 2008

Making Waves and Riding the Currents: A Conversation with Public Interest Pioneer Charles Halpern

After an insightful and personal introduction from Professor Patricia Williams touching upon the achievements and influence of the CUNY Law School, former CUNY Law School Dean Charles Halpern addressed the Columbia ACS and ELS commuunity.
Public Interest Pioneer, Charles Halpern

Mr. Halpern began by recounting his early career at Arnold and Porter and in establishing the Center for Law and Social Policy, the first public interest law firm in the nation. The Center for Law and Social Policy began its efforts by expanding organizational standing for environmental interest groups, pointing to the emergence of modern environmental law as one of the most beneficent trends in contemporary legal history.

Of "making waves," Mr. Halpern discussed his early litigation experiences in pressing for more robust and accessible avenues for public input in environmental decision-making. He then contrasted his corporate work - crafting arguments against labeling requirements for the caffeine-content of Coca-Cola - with his early efforts in assisting those with mental handicaps. One case, in which Mr. Halpern argued that if the state held mentally ill individuals against their will, it was bound to provide treatment and respect their individual rights.

The Center for Law and Social Policy, once founded, immediately began institutionally expressing a shift in the mode of legal practice. More communitarian and cooperative values soon displaced the hierarchy and advesarialism of the traditional law firm. This approach - echoed explicitly at CUNY - emphasized "inner work" over billable hours, and the Center experimented with group meditation, nature expeditions, and other means of shattering the dominant legal paradigm of the day.

The CUNY Law School extended this approach, seeking to train entire individuals, rather than mechanical attorneys, and asked students to prize their own convictions. He went on to ironically note that grouping together the type of person drawn to the nascent CUNY Law School were exactly the sort of people who reflexively questioned any authority - especially academic authority embodied by a white male dean.

Mr. Halpern concluded by noting that the "novel and unprecedented problems" facing the current generation of public interest lawyers - notably that of global climate change - demands the integration of wisdom into the practice of law and policy.

Columbia ACS and ELS would like to thank Charles Halpern for his remarkable career and his valuable remarks today.


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