Rebel Lawyer

Gerald Lopez's radical theory—and practice

Gerald López on a pedestrian bridge two blocks from his childhood home in East Los Angeles. For him, rebellious lawyering is not just a legal theory, but a way of being.Photograph by Coral von Zumwalt

With the sun finally fading on a blazing spring afternoon in Los Angeles, Gerald López, J.D. ’74, was sitting down to a simple dinner—salad, bread, Prosecco—at a restaurant a few blocks from the UCLA campus, where he teaches law. He has spent most of his life in this city, first as the child of Mexican immigrants, and later as a “wild-ass radical lawyer” for the poor and marginalized—and an equally wild and radical professor. Now he was trying to explain why he’d chosen public-interest law in the first place. Actually, the question didn’t make sense to him. What else would he have done? “I always thought the idea was, you go back to some neighborhood with a bunch of poor people and fight like shit,” he says. “Otherwise, why be a lawyer?”

That was the bedrock. On top of it, López built a legal philosophy that has powerfully influenced the practice of civil-rights and poverty law. In 1992, he published a controversial book that altered the way a generation of lawyers conceptualized their work: Rebellious Lawyering: One Chicano’s Vision of Progressive Law Practice. Countless spin-off publications have appeared in legal journals over the years, applying López’s lessons to the specifics of immigration law, racial discrimination, mass incarceration, environmental justice, education reform. The student-run Rebellious Lawyering Conference, launched in 1994 at Yale Law School, held its twenty-fifth annual gathering this past February, drawing more than 1,000 participants. The book “stands among the transformative canons of clinical theory and practice,” wrote University of Miami legal scholar Anthony Alfieri in a 2016 issue of Clinical Law Review dedicated to Rebellious Lawyering. “Groundbreaking” and “radicalizing,” was how another author described it.

For all its influence and notoriety, Rebellious Lawyering has been out of print since 1995, when its small publisher was acquired by a larger company. For years, López fought to win back the publishing rights, as copies of the book, suddenly scarce, disappeared from library shelves (Harvard’s law library is missing one copy, and allows only two-hour loans of another) and went for hundreds of dollars online. He finally succeeded in 2017, and plans to release a new edition soon.

Voluble and absorbing, Rebellious Lawyering reads like a long, genial manifesto. Richly detailed fictional narratives follow several characters through their daily work: housing and labor lawyers, the head of a public-interest litigation firm, a legal-aid immigration attorney, a family-law specialist leading a neighborhood service center. Embedded in all this is López’s central argument: that progressive lawyering “must be anchored in the world it tries to change.” It is not something exalted and apart. Rather than bringing power down from on high, “rebellious” lawyers take part creating it, collaborating on equal footing with clients to solve problems.

That’s what lawyering is, López believes—a form of problem-solving, albeit a “highly stylized” one, to which clients bring their own indispensable knowledge and expertise, honed from the problem-solving they do every day in their own worlds and lives. In the book’s introduction, López recalls the first wave of activist lawyers who arrived in his East L.A. neighborhood during the 1960s. Well-intentioned and full of energy, they were nevertheless strikingly ineffective. Their unfamiliarity with the community they’d stepped into, and reluctance to immerse themselves further, left them mostly disconnected and unresponsive to the actual dynamics shaping local people’s lives. They tended, López wrote, “to fit our needs and aspirations into pre-established frameworks.”

Tall and loping and light on his feet, López seems younger than his age. There are flashes of the teenage athlete who once wanted to be the fastest running back in the country. He smiles often—a delighted, open-mouthed smile that slivers his eyes into crescent moons. Now 70, he has been orbiting the ideas that animated Rebellious Lawyering for nearly his entire adult life. You can see them coalescing in the titles of his law review essays, written between the 1980s and the present: “The Work We Know So Little About,” “The Idea of a Constitution in the Chicano Tradition,” “An Aversion to Clients,” “Shaping Community Problem Solving Around Community Knowledge,” “Changing Systems, Changing Ourselves.”

He remains fixated partly because the paradigm shift he envisioned remains incomplete. And that shift is most important, López has come to believe, in legal education. He began teaching law full time in 1978, at UCLA, and followed that with stints at Harvard, Stanford, and New York University, before he returned to UCLA 10 years ago. Law schools have steadily added clinical programs and lawyers have edged “in fits and starts” toward work that he would call “rebellious,” but the real transformation, he says, hasn’t yet happened. So he keeps pushing.


López grew up a few miles from UCLA’s Westwood campus, the son and grandson of immigrants who’d arrived, sometimes without papers, to work in mining towns in the Southwest. He worked too, from an early age, first as a shoe-shine boy and then, after his father died when López was 14, as a gardener, a janitor, and a warehouse laborer, helping to put food on the family’s table. The neighborhood was almost entirely Mexican, with a smattering of Chinese, Japanese, Russians, and Irish, and he learned to pay attention to the meaning of ethnicity.

He also came to know the criminal-justice system early, when his older brother, beloved and idolized, became a heroin addict in his mid-teens. For years he cycled in and out of prison. There was very little help for him or the rest of the family, beyond a tiny cluster of friends, and a feeling of lostness and dislocation lodged deep in López and stayed with him. After high school, he enrolled at the University of Southern California and then, because it was a dream of his late father’s—and because he wanted to fight—he headed to Harvard Law School.

“I was feral,” he says—arriving in Cambridge unsophisticated, but smart and hungry. The curriculum, with its casebook orthodoxy and Socratic method, left him cold. And the culture alienated him—Harvard was a place, he wrote later, that “had no idea” how to “expose students to the complex lives of people like those with whom I had grown up.” By his second year, he’d mostly stopped going to class. And yet for the first time in his life, he says, he began to read seriously: fiction, poetry, psychology, science, sociology, religion—anything but law-school textbooks. “It must have been chemical or something—I was finally ready to sit still,” he says. The reading taught him something important: “that you could draw wildly powerful insights for your own work from seemingly really dissimilar sources.” A kind of rebelliousness.

He did dive eagerly into one facet of law school, a legal clinic, supervised by Gary Bellow, who founded Harvard’s clinical law programs and became a role model for López (see “Nothing rankles more than the feeling of injustice,” November-December 2017, page 66). Assigned to the Massachusetts public defender’s office, he worked in Dorchester, where he began making house calls on juvenile defendants who missed pretrial meetings. “The kids would be arrested for some misdemeanor, and then they’d get a note from the public defender that said, ‘Show up at the office.’ And mainly they didn’t.” Some missed court dates, too. “I thought, ‘This is crazy,’ ” López says. So he and another student decided to go knock on doors. “We were these two long-haired guys, him blond and me Mexican, calling on these Irish and Italian families. The racial dynamics were such that we were told we should not be doing this, that these were rough neighborhoods.” But every family welcomed him: “They could see we were going out of our way for their kids.”

López finished a year behind his classmates, having spent what would have been his third year of law school in Europe, living on the streets and sleeping out in fields, deliberating about whether to return to school. In the end, the work drew him back, even if the coursework didn’t.

After graduation, he returned to California, and, along with three former public defenders, opened up what he calls “our little radical law practice” inside a San Diego storefront. Their clients were immigrants, farm workers, housekeepers, the poor and disenfranchised. “We did a potpourri of things we found politically acceptable to bring money in the door—family law, personal injury, immigration—and then we did huge amounts of unpaid work with communities and community organizations,” he says. Even though the practice lasted only three years, the work left an enduring mark on him, especially the civil-rights litigation that paid only when they won. “And we took the cases that were the least likely of all to win. We took on righteous fights that, as a legal matter, were real long shots because those were fights worth fighting.”


To him, they still are. A clinical professor for the past three decades, he still takes lost causes on the side, clients who can’t pay, and likely can’t win, but still want to fight. “It could be about anything,” he says: civil rights, small-time claims, legal complaints that don’t fall into easy categories. “Maybe you’re getting screwed over by a health provider, and there’s no lawsuit, per se, but I’ll still say, ‘OK, let’s go fight.…If it means something to you to fight, then I’ll throw down.’ ” That alone can change lives. “You might never get a judgment, but making the other person take you seriously, that might well catapult you into a whole different life from then on. I’ve seen it. I believe it. I enjoy that kind of lawyering as much as I enjoy any lawyering.”

Still, the “real revolution” López maintains, “is with the teachers, the universities, the bar.” He was still working in the San Diego law practice when he started teaching adjunct classes at a local law school. He loved it immediately. “I began a clinic right away down there. And I’d been assigned these doctrinal courses that I tried converting into lawyering, problem-solving courses.” Before long, UCLA called with a tenure-track offer, and a few years after that, he came to Harvard on a visiting professorship in 1983 to teach a course in civil-rights litigation. Afterward, he joined the faculty at Stanford, where he helped found a three-year clinical sequence called Lawyering for Social Change.

In 2000, he took a job at NYU. There he launched something different: a sprawling, ambitious, perpetually underfunded experiment called the Center for Community Problem Solving. It attempted to put into practice his philosophy of deep community engagement. One centerpiece was a massive survey of residents from six local neighborhoods, intended to gather, analyze, and distribute “neglected street-level community knowledge” about problems that affected the poor and people of color—not just legal problems, but also social and economic ones. The work yielded a 2005 “re-entry guide” for the formerly incarcerated returning to the city—how to navigate the world they were re-entering, find work and housing and education, manage the obstacles they’d face as ex-convicts. That guide and the research behind it became the basis for a clinic López launched and taught in for many years after he returned to UCLA in 2008, helping clients not only fight discrimination in hiring, but also secure financing and licenses to start their own businesses, which a criminal record also makes difficult. “What we learned listening to the community,” López says, “shaped our work.”

On the eve of its republication, Rebellious Lawyering, and its ideas, remain urgent and they send López to work every day. In 2017 he published a two-part essay in Clinical Law Review titled “Transform—Don’t Just Tinker With—Legal Education,” calling for law schools to turn their basic curriculum inside out.

Law school, he says, “should provide us mind-boggling experiences at every turn.…That’s what practicing in the world should be like, and that’s what law school should be like.” He knows that sounds idealistic. It doesn’t bother him. “If it is utopian, it’s a practicable utopia. I think we can do it. I just think we don’t have the will.” Like living and lawyering, that’s simply a problem to be solved.  

Read more articles by Lydialyle Gibson

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