Attorney + Social Justice – What does it really mean?

Social justice is at the forefront of many things, and with good reason. In fact, more and more law school admission professionals have indicated an increase in student applications reflecting interest in pursuing a law career to become social justice advocates.

But what does it mean to be a social justice advocate? And, more specifically, what does social justice mean in the legal context? How can you, as a future attorney, gather the skills and information necessary to become the social justice advocate you desire to be?

This post explores what it looks like to be a social justice advocate and a practicing attorney.

Defining Social Justice

Merriam-Webster defines social justice as “a state or doctrine of egalitarianism.” Britannica states that “social justice, in contemporary politics, social science, and political philosophy, the fair treatment and equitable status of all individuals and social groups within a state or society.” The term also is used to refer to social, political, and economic institutions, laws, or policies that collectively afford such fairness and equity and is commonly applied to movements that seek fairness, equity, inclusion, self-determination, or other goals for currently or historically oppressed, exploited, or marginalized populations.

The term appears (although not defined) in The Federalist Papers No. 7. You can also find elements of social justice in theories such as Critical Race Theory, Motivational Interviewing, and Baxter-Magolda’s Theory of Self-Authorship.

In the legal sense, the definition is similar: “Social justice is justice that follows the principle that all individuals and groups are entitled to fair and impartial treatment. Social justice attempts to prevent human rights abuses. Social justice is based on notions of equality and equal opportunity in society. It focuses on the full and equal participation of all citizens in economic, social, and political aspects of the nation. Social justice can also refer to advantages and disadvantages distributed in a society.” (emphasis added)

Social justice is focused on justice, fair and impartial treatment, equality, and equal opportunity, and preventing abuses based on social injustices.

Principles/Goals of Social Justice

As you continue to understand what social justice means to you, consider the following articulated principles/goals of social justice as presented by GenV and Kent State:

  • Human Rights
  • Access
  • Participation
  • Equity
  • Diversity

Do any of these principles stand out to you? How do you see yourself advancing social justice issues within these categories? How can a law degree and career as an attorney support your goals of social justice through some or all of these lenses?

Lawyers and Social Justice

Based on the definitions and principles listed above, you can see clear themes emerging around how an individual perceives social justice. Understanding what social justice means is important in figuring out how you want to contribute towards social justice causes through your law school and legal careers.

Here are some examples of social justice issues that intersect with the law highlighted by the advocacy organization Pachamama:

  • Voting Laws (i.e. redistricting and voter ID)
  • Policing Laws (i.e. search and seizure and drug scheduling)
  • Environmental Laws (i.e. clean water and air, industrial waste disposal)
  • Health Care Laws (i.e. insurance mandates and coverage eligibility)
  • Education Laws (i.e. public school segregation and integration)
  • Labor Laws (i.e. worker’s rights, occupational health and safety)

The reality is social justice efforts inform almost all aspects of society and the human experience ranging from Climate Justice to Healthcare to Racial Justice to LGBTQIA+ Oppression to Sizeism to Ageism to Hunger and Food Insecurity. You can explore these areas here: 10 Social Justice Issues of 2022. Understanding what the role of law and the legal system is within these causes is important to understanding if a law degree and legal career is right for you.

Social Justice and You

If social justice is a big reason why you want to attend law school and practice law, it will be important that you give the concept some thought; especially if you cite this in your personal statement. Review the definitions listed above and research your own. Use the examples provided to paint a picture in your mind about what being a social justice advocate means to you.

As you develop your goals, be sure to explore the ways in which attorneys work within the universe of social justice causes that are of most interest to you.  Are they helping to create policy?  Do they represent clients, who are these clients?  What type of legal matters or issues require attorney representation? Do you see yourself advocating for these causes through your full-time work or perhaps your pro bono work? How can you weave your passion for social justice into your life?

Law Schools + Social Justice:

Law Schools strive to educate future attorneys who are ready to work on the most pressing legal issues and challenges in our society. As a result, law schools are continually evolving, reflecting on their curriculums and missions to ensure they are offering opportunities to learn in areas most relevant for attorneys today. As legal education continues to evolve and adapt, many law schools have expanded to include curricular offers that specifically offer learning opportunities on social justice topics, including clinics! Be sure to learn about these opportunities at law schools you are interested in.

As you look to the future, continue to refine what social justice means to you and how you could use your skills and experiences to advance a social justice cause, through your legal career, in a way that is meaningful to you.

To help you get started, check out the article “Top Schools Schools for Racial Justice” found in the Fall 2022 Edition of PreLaw Magazine or stop by the PLAS office and pick up a copy of the full magazine.