A Lawyer’s Role in Driving Change

Change, it has been said, is the only constant. But pursuing positive change in the society we share is a job for those with skill, passion and purpose – a job, that is, for lawyers.

photo of Aviva Abramovsky.

In a year when world events have fundamentally changed the way we live, adaptability and flexibility have been the mainstays of daily life. Dean Aviva Abramovsky’s words – on the persistence of hope even when democracy itself is under siege – point to an ever-present truth: that in making the world safer and more just, there’s always more change to be pursued.

 “As members of this legal community, we are agents for democracy and ambassadors for justice. Our legacy will be determined by what we do next. We must use this moment to sharpen our focus, re-engage with our core values and rededicate ourselves to the preservation of the rule of law. For our students, you entered law school to become effective advocates, to provide a voice and effect change. Allow this moment to motivate you to become the best advocate possible. Use the tools you acquire throughout law school to work toward change where it is needed. Recognize the fragility of the rule of law and use your skills to honor it and protect it.” –Dean Aviva Abramovsky, after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol

Do lawyers have an obligation to pursue change? And what will that obligation look like as the profession continues to evolve? We asked three members of the UB Law community—student, faculty and alumnus—to reflect on the lawyer’s role in moving society forward.

Rina Hernandez, 2020-21 President, Student Bar Association

photo of Rina Hernandez.

“A well-functioning society depends on the proper and just administration of the law, as well as effective leaders to uphold the law and ensure its fair administration. As society changes, so can the legal profession, to preserve society’s integrity. Throughout American history and especially at present, lawyers are among the most powerful agents of societal change. Lawyers are uniquely positioned to pursue societal change where they see that justice demands it. Legal advancements –from civil to environmental to criminal to immigrant rights law – bear witness to the impact lawyers have on our society and its administration of justice.

“In law school I have learned from, networked with and read many legal scholars and lawyers who are admirable advocates for maintaining an equitable society and justice system. Many of my UB Law peers, my friends and classmates, have pursued change and demonstrated their advocacy skills through deep involvement in extracurriculars. Their work toward positive societal change has already started – through their involvement in law clinics, as teaching assistants, as student organization leaders and through their community service. As times and the profession evolve, I am confident that we have acquired the knowledge and skills to be great advocates, preservers of justice and agents of societal change in our legal careers.”

Michael Boucai, Professor of Law

photo of Michael Boucai.

“There’s a tension in the two messages I try to convey to students regarding the relationship between law and social change. My first message is one of empowerment. As I’ve learned from eight years on UB Law’s Admissions Committee, many of our students enroll with the notion that a legal education will specially prepare them to improve the community or the country or indeed the world – and they’re absolutely right. There are opportunities to effect significant change in every corner of our profession – from major legislative reforms to creative extensions of legal precedent; from the clients one chooses to represent to the associates one chooses to hire.

“My second message, however, is humility. At the same time as I embolden students to perceive themselves as agents of change, I seek to disabuse them of any faith in law’s omnipotence. This means emphasizing the myriad discontinuities between law and social practice. Legal and social change aren’t synonymous; you can have one without the other. And even when society and law evolve in the same direction, they never move in lockstep. Law can’t seamlessly reflect social change any more than it can perfectly impose it.”

Christopher A. Wightman ’99 Chair, Dean’s Advisory Council and Partner, PJT Camberview

photo of Christopher A. Wightman.

“Aspiring law students often happily enter the grind of law school motivated by an altruistic desire to drive social change, a noble reason for undertaking the effort and joining the profession (and not necessarily at odds with advocating for their clients’ interests). As we live through global pandemic and political turmoil, our culture and society are experiencing tremendous social change, and lawyers (including hundreds of UB Law students and alumni) are driving this change through both public and private channels. With their training and professional experience, lawyers can be excellent advocates for social change.

“American lawyers operate in a constitutionally based system designed to both provide for our government and protect our individual rights. Throughout the country’s history, our society has continually evolved and lawyers have been at the heart of creating, interpreting and litigating the laws needed to ensure our individual rights remain protected.

“Today, the pace of change seems to be moving at a particularly fast rate, raising new challenges in areas from basic human rights to fair immigration to access to medical care to free communication across social media platforms. Each of these areas of change, and many others, will require the skillful and committed work of passionate lawyers who are dedicated to driving societal change while ensuring our legal and political systems evolve along with that changing society– an endless and often daunting lawyer’s obligation – and a challenge that a UB School of Law graduate is well-suited to address.”