Having been born in Manhattan, raised in a very close-in suburb which orbited in the firm grasp of The City and existed to serve it (it was the era when parents did that), and having lived and worked on this Island ever since college and law school, I plead guilty to being a native of the bubble.
The “bubble” in this case (there are dozens and dozens of them here and abroad) is the groupthink that can, almost without being noticed, permeate the office chatter and the lunches and cocktai parties of the professional classes in midtown, the Upper East and Upper West Sides, Tribeca and Chelsea, and other privileged neighborhoods. What exactly do I mean?
Public opinion pollsters have established a few litmus tests, or benchmarks, they use to measure attitudes on the conventional liberal/conservative spectrum, which are respondents’ views on issues such as pro-life/pro-choice, gun control/gun rights, for/against capital punishment, and a few others; you get the gist. Suffice to say the level of unspoken agreement on those issues here in the bubble is why one can plausibly label it just that: A bubble. (As the joke has it, “New York is perfect if you want the United States to be convenient without actually having to live there.”)
As I implied, there are many of these like-minded bubbles out there—everywhere from Ann Arbor, Palo Alto, and Cambridge to, conversely, the coal regions of Kentucky and West Virginia, Idaho and Montana and eastern Washington and Oregon, Mississippi and Alabama.
And as a Nation we just experienced a thunderclap of a wake-up call about how different American citizens’ views are. In the Manhattan bubble—perhaps not dissimilar to the City of London’s reaction to the Brexit referendum—this has taken the form of shock, denial, and gallows humor (“Is it 2020 yet?” buttons appeared spontaneously for sale everywhere).
But we at the indisputably more privileged end of this divide dare not be self-satisfied or condescending; the stakes are not, actually, symmetrical. As Charles Murray pointed out in 2012 in his seminal, and scarring, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010:
Many of the members of the new upper class [he’s talking to us, folks] are Balkanized. Furthermore, their ignorance about other Americans is more problematic than the ignorance of other Americans about them. It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale professors. It is a problem if Yale professors, or producers of network news programs, or CEOs of great corporations, or presidential advisers cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers.
Far more memorable and pithy was this exchange: A Trump strategist, challenged on national TV shortly before Election Day on his assertion that the elite liberal media was biased against his candidate, asked simply, “How many Hillary supporters in Manhattan have been to Paris more often than they’ve been to Staten Island?”
Adam Smith, Esq. is resolutely apolitical and that will not change: Not today, not next year, not ever.
But I have profound beliefs about the responsibilities of our profession to our society, given the extraordinary largesse that free-market liberal democracies have bestowed on us, and given our root commitment to opposing injustice and speaking out for the rule of law, and the timing seemed propitious for a reminder.
Two new stories illustrate what I mean. First up is The New Yorker’s currently running profile of Carrie Goldberg, a 39-year-old Brooklyn lawyer specializing in what’s formally called sexual privacy law, but you and I think of it as anti-revenge-porn. Here’s how she got started:
Several years ago, Goldberg was harassed by a vengeful ex. At the time, she was working as the director of legal services at the Vera Institute, a criminal-justice nonprofit in Manhattan. The ex threatened to send intimate pictures she’d given him to her professional colleagues. “I stand before you as a lawyer but also as somebody’s target,” Goldberg said recently, in a speech that she gave at a conference on domestic abuse, in Albany. “When I went to the police, they told me it was not a criminal issue.” She’d been frightened and embarrassed, and after the ex was served with a restraining order—he did not disseminate the pictures—she decided to start her own firm. As she put it to me, “That way, I could be the lawyer I’d needed.”
When revenge porn began to be a recognized term, fighting to get the pictures at issue taken off the Web was like commanding the tides to abate. But slowly, as our profession has become aware of this particular form injustice and shifted into gear on it, progress is beginning to be made.
Over two years ago K&L Gates founded the “Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project” which has dozens of lawyers at the firm volunteering their time, under the leadership of David Bateman, a partner in the firm’s Seattle office, and Elisa D’Amico, partner in the Miami office.
More systemic changes are in the works, according to The New Yorker, “partly in response to arguments by Goldberg and others.” Kamala Harris, the former Attorney General of California who was just elected to the US Senate, convened a task force last year of tech companies, law enforcement, and anti-revenge-porn advocates who recommended new policies which major online firms began adopting—as simple as providing an online form to allow victims to request content be deleted short of filing a formal copyright infringement claim. Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook prohibited “involuntary pornography” early last year and Instagram, Google, Bing, and Yahoo weren’t far behind. Search engines even began “de-indexing” revenge porn, meaning it can’t be found through a search on the victim’s name (though the absolute URL may still be live).
A solution? No. A good start? Absolutely.
Story #2 is The New York Times’ report, “Gun Control Advocates Find a Deep-Pocketed Ally in Big Law:”
After the Orlando nightclub massacre and a string of other mass shootings, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Covington & Burling; Arnold & Porter; and four other prominent law firms formed a coalition with gun control groups that until now have worked largely on their own. Together, the firms are committing tens of millions of dollars in free legal services from top corporate lawyers who typically bill clients $1,000 an hour or more.
This effort is highly unusual in its scale. Although law firms often donate time to individual causes, and some firms have worked on gun control on a piecemeal basis, the number and the prominence of the firms involved in the new coalition are unheard-of for modern-day big law. Other firms are expected to join in the coming months.
The coalition intends to focus on state and regulatory agencies rather than trying to mount a full-frontal assault into the teeth of very strong political headwinds at the national level. And the founders state forthrightly that they have no intent of attacking the Second Amendment directly:
“Those of us working on this effort recognize that the Second Amendment is an important part of our Constitution, and we don’t take issue with responsible gun owners,” said Brad D. Brian, co-managing partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson. But he added, “There is an epidemic of gun violence in this country, and the law can save innocent lives without infringing constitutional rights.”
Richard M. Alexander, the chairman of Arnold & Porter, called the coalition an effective way of “addressing the worsening scourge of gun violence that plagues this country.”
Brad S. Karp, the chairman of Paul, Weiss, first alluded to the coalition in an email to colleagues just hours after the Orlando nightclub tragedy: “It is in our DNA to act when we see injustice,” referring to the firm’s work on same-sex marriage.
Since it was just born, it would be pointless to predict how successful this coalition may be, but certainly the intellectual horsepower behind the effort is unprecedented.
This issue and this initiative may be new, but lawyers’ involvement at the forefront of social issues is a time-honored tradition we seem to have lost sight of lately. It’s time to restore our claim to it.
Just yesterday the death of Robert Douglass (Dartmouth BA, Cornell Law JD), a long-time advisor to the Rockefellers, was reported, at his home in Greenwich at age 85, just one year after he retired. The name may mean little to you, but he was a quintessential force for imaginative and constructive public/private engagement, something lawyers used to excel at and could well again. Among other things, he:
- Was counsel to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller for seven years (Teddy White described him as “the ablest of the Rockefeller [advisers]” in his “Making of the President” book series);
- Was General Counsel and Vice Chairman of Chase Bank;
- Chaired the Alliance for Downtown New York, the largest self-taxing business improvement district in North America;
- Was pivotal in helping revitalize lower Manhattan after the Twin Towers’ destruction on 9/11;
- and was of counsel at Milbank.
This nicely summarizes the role he played:
“Among his unusual, if not unique, attributes,” Carl Weisbrod, who was president of the Downtown Alliance and is now chairman of the City Planning Commission, said in an interview, was “his depth of understanding of how government functions and how the business world functions — and how to meet the needs of both.”
You protest? These things could be controversial? Clients might disapprove? You have your hands full, and then some, billing 2,000+ hours/year? You’re on the EC at your firm and serve your church/synagogue and your college alumni network and enough is enough?
I won’t itemize responses to those, but in my experience clients respect lawyers with backbone; and we all find time for what we choose to deem important.
But the real reason is the one Brad Karp articulated: “It is in our DNA to act when we see injustice.”
Brad was speaking in the present tense.
Update Monday 12 December: Contact info if you want to help.
Missing from the original column (because I didn’t yet have the information) was what to do if you want to help. Here’s the answer:
Contact Adam Skaggs, Litigation Director, Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Adam’s background, per the “Smart Gun Laws” site:
Adam Skaggs joined the Law Center as litigation director in 2016. Before then, he served as senior counsel at Everytown for Gun Safety, where he led the organization’s litigation efforts and advocated for firearm policies designed to reduce gun violence.
Adam previously served as senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, where he worked on issues related to money in politics, judicial independence, and voting rights. He was a litigation associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York City and a law clerk to Judge Stanley Marcus of the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and Chief Judge Edward Korman of the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
Adam’s political commentary has been published in the National Law Journal, the New Republic, Politico, the Atlantic, ACSBlog, and the New York Times, among other publications, and he has been widely quoted by media from the Wall Street Journal and Fox News to the New York Times and MSNBC. Adam graduated summa cum laude with a JD from Brooklyn Law School, where he was a member of the Brooklyn Law Review. He received an MS in Urban Affairs from Hunter College of the City University of New York, and holds a BA, awarded with distinction, from Swarthmore College.