Debra Dickerson (HLS ’95) spent her twenties in “hysterical mode” trying to get out of the inner city, where she grew up. She was the neighborhood “smart girl,” but she had seen other smart girls end up washing dishes, a fate she was determined to avoid. So she followed a well-worn path out of poverty – she joined the military.
In the military, Dickerson grew self-confident and ambitious. And then she became political. Studying political science and international relations while serving the country on active duty, Dickerson began to think critically about foreign policy, questioning U.S. actions in Central America and the post-Cold War role of the military. She came to believe that there was nothing accidental in the way that the world was structured and wondered how far she could climb in the military hierarchy as a black woman who was unable to fly a fighter plane. She also began looking inward, recognizing that a kind of “internalized oppression” was preventing her from achieving her full potential.
“I became fired up about doing something about the status quo,” recalls Dickerson. “I became zealous on behalf of poor black people. I developed an animating sense of outrage.” Inspired by a profile of Thurgood Marshall, Dickerson decided she could use a law degree. She came to Harvard Law School in 1992.
Dickerson has always looked for role models, and at HLS, she found them in Legal Services Center founders Gary Bellow and Jeanne Charn. She spent two semesters at the LSC representing poor tenants against their landlords – landlords for whom Dickerson often had sympathy. Dickerson loved the LSC in part because of her instructors’ openness to these sympathies. She found no us-against-them mentality, no righteousness. Instead, she found a willingness to discuss the tough questions and to use creativity to solve difficult social problems.
At the same time, Dickerson was discovering that she might not end up as a practicing lawyer. One day, on a lark, Dickerson wrote an essay and submitted it for publication in the HLS Record. The Record responded by offering her a weekly column. Dickerson’s columns, unlike much of the Record, were not about Harvard. “Harvard was so self-involved already,” Dickerson recalls. “So I wrote about life in the real world. I wrote about bringing home my Harvard education to help my sister avoid getting evicted from her apartment when the toilet was leaking all over the floor.” It was “lefty crunchy feminist stuff,” and it was funny. Suddenly, Dickerson had a readership of alumni all over the country. She even got fan mail.
After graduation, Dickerson went to work at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on a Skadden Fellowship, but she grew more and more convinced that writing was her true calling. In 1995, her teenaged nephew was shot and paralyzed “for no reason at all.” Dickerson poured herself into writing about the tragedy. The resulting article, “Who Shot Johnny?”, was published in the New Republic in January 1996, and Dickerson hasn’t had to look for a writing assignment since.
Debra Dickerson is now a full-time author and journalist. She is the author of many articles and two books, “An American Story” (2000) and “The End of Blackness” (2004). Dickerson says her time at HLS gave her the credentials and connections she needed to succeed in the early stages of her writing career. Even today, Dickerson says, she often draws on her law background and her experience at the LSC in her writing. “My legal education keeps me more grounded than a lot of other outraged citizen activist people. I take the long view. And I have a respect for the rule of law, even when I don’t like the way it plays out in a particular situation.”
To HLS students and graduates wondering what to do with their law degrees, Dickerson has this piece of advice: “Decide who you are and what you want to do, and don’t make excuses for it.” It is advice she has followed herself, with great success.
For more information about Debra Dickerson, visit her website at http://www.debradickerson.com.
For Jeffrey Selbin (’89), a clinical placement at the Legal Services Center in Jamaica Plain was the most formative experience of his law school years. Selbin came to the Center as a second-year student and “lived there” during his second and third years of law school. “It felt great to help people, to make a difference in their lives,” Selbin recalled. At the Center, Selbin discovered the intersection of ideas and real people’s problems. “My classroom learning came alive,” says Selbin. “I could see that the legal concepts we discussed at an academic level had real, life-changing consequences for my clients - consequences as fundamental as whether they had a roof over their heads, access to health care, or income to feed and clothe their children.”
Selbin was so thoroughly affected by his experiences at the Center that he returned as a Skadden Fellow after graduation and then went on to become a clinical instructor at UC Berkeley/Boalt Hall’s community law office, the East Bay Community Law Center. Today, Selbin directs the EBCLC and serves as a Clinical Professor of Law on the Boalt faculty. He is recognized as a national leader in poverty law and legal education; since 2003, Selbin has been named a Bellow Scholar by the Association of American Law Schools, a Northern California “Super Lawyer” by San Francisco Magazine, and a Wasserstein Fellow by Harvard Law School.
Selbin enjoys doing legal aid work in a law school setting because it affords him a special opportunity to be an engine of teaching and service innovation. Capitalizing on Boalt’s position as part of the University of California system, for example, Selbin has helped to develop a “medical-legal collaborative” in which EBCLC’s lawyers and students work with doctors and medical students from Berkeley’s Children’s Hospital to provide holistic service to clients in the hospital’s low income clinic.
Selbin and his colleagues have also created a groundbreaking Clean Slate program, in which students help ex-offenders clear their criminal records so they can reintegrate into the greater community and move forward with their lives. The Clean Slate program hit a nerve; demand for services has been high, with students serving almost 2,100 Clean Slate clients since the program’s inception in the Spring of 2005.
Clinical teaching also presents unique pedagogical opportunities that Selbin cherishes. He appreciates the challenge of giving students a set of reflective practices they can take with them into any legal setting. He also believes strongly in the clinical model. According to Selbin, classroom learning is fundamentally important, but it is no substitute for working in a functioning law office with all the demands and opportunities that are presented there. “So much of lawyering is like riding a bicycle. You can listen all day to instructions about how to do it, but ultimately the only way to learn is to get up on the bike.”
For students considering a clinical placement at the Legal Services Center, Selbin has two words: “Do it.” The opportunity to work at a community law office is a unique and wonderful one, Selbin says. “Throw yourself into it. Be open to the possibility that you will find something you really love, or even something you really don’t love, or maybe something in between. That’s the point.”
Jeff is in the process of transitioning to a new position at Boalt Hall where he will serve as Clinical Professor of Poverty Law and Faculty Director of EBCLC. He is happy to speak with LSC students interested in a career in clinical legal education, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.