When I started Held Law Firm, my dream was to do more than just take individual cases. I wanted to use what I learned from individual cases to design solutions for problems faced by many of my clients, and then advocate, organize, and lobby for those solutions.
In those first few years, we were active in a variety of causes. We represented numerous business located in low-income neighborhoods who were struggling with zoning and codes issues. As a result, we represented several non-profit charities and advocacy groups, such as the Knoxville Home Childcare Association, to design solutions removing these barriers. We even set up a non-profit bank to assist with small business loans for these community-based businesses.
We worked with the Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network to design a living wage ordinance, incorporating the input from hundreds of business and labor leaders throughout the area. We worked with Knox Recall to clean up the voter registration rolls in Knox County, as well as hold public officials accountable for apparent violations of the Sunshine Laws. We represented several people who accused police officers of using excessive force, particularly in neighborhoods of color. In that process, we worked with Citizens for Police Review, and designed and wrote the ordinance for what became the Police Advisory and Review Committee (PARC), which exists today as an independent body reviewing allegations of abuse of power within the police, but also to improve the community’s relationship with those who police it.
As the law firm got busier, I had less and less time to devote to these big picture enterprises, until I woke up one day, two years ago, and realized I wasn’t doing anything except keeping up with my caseload and managing the growing list of employees. I had become obsessed with cash flow and payroll, quality control and human resources. I began to feel like we were falling victim to our own success, a success that was built on a commitment to my community that I was no longer honoring, because I was just too busy with the day-to-day.
Last summer, I had dinner with one of my oldest friends, Bob Becker. Bob is a former city councilman and vice-mayor of the City of Knoxville. Before that, he worked as a Community Organizer, on issues ranging from solid waste disposal to income inequality issues. He worked here as the Office Manager for a brief time before moving to Virginia with his new wife. We talked about the original vision of the law firm, the good we did, how effective it was to take the individual experiences of several clients, and to address them on a bigger, broader stage, and also how the causes we work for need to always be responsive to, and governed by, the individual experience. How laws should reflect the needs of the individuals in society, and individuals in society should write those laws. How the first forum for identifying those issues is the courtroom, and the last forum is the General Assembly. How we, as lawyers, contribute to that process.
So now, twenty plus years later, I find myself recommitting to the vision upon which this firm was founded: to use the law to help my clients, and also, more broadly, to help my community. Bob’s family has agreed to sacrifice their time with him for a week a month to come to Knoxville and help me structure this new project, which will require literally hundreds of interviews with local leaders, teachers, colleagues, other professionals, and clients, about what the role of such a law firm should be in the long term, identifying who our allies and partners will be in such an endeavor.
I am grateful to my colleagues and staff at the firm. They are already planning, based on the experiences of our current clients. Projects range from creating a non-profit business center, to addressing the unique legal needs of veterans, to forming a network of professionals to intervene before kids become involved in the Juvenile courts, to promoting collaborative law, to creating a low-cost but quality “lightly contested” divorce package, to addressing the housing needs of felons.
These are not my ideas. These are the ideas of the lawyers and staff at the firm, who represent folks in these situations every day. The practice of law should be more than simply working through a series of cases. We should use what we learn in working those cases to Get Somewhere. I learn something new with every case we do. Doesn’t it seem that we’d learn something from the trajectory of those cases as a whole?
I wonder/hope/dream that this process can be a way to work through our problems as a society in a way that is evidence-based, principled, develops policy, but is a-political. Such a law firm would be something I would be proud to leave as a legacy.