Critical Legal Empowerment: 

Strategies for Community Built Justice

February 24-25, 2022


A deep change in approach is needed to alter the basic conditions of those who experience persistent injustice. In our current legal ecosystem, lawyers are placed at the center of efforts to resolve justice problems. Legal empowerment—a global movement led by the grassroots, with lawyers and other professionals in supporting, rather than leading roles—is a crucial part of the justice transformation that is needed. When rights-holders are centered and directly engage institutions affecting their lives, they demand that systems become more accessible and responsive to the daily challenges of the people. And when the law and legal systems are actively harming marginalized and oppressed peoples, critical legal empowerment can ensure they are the authors of their own liberation. 

Critical legal empowerment rejects technocratic approaches and embraces community-based efforts to redistribute legal power. These methods open up space for communities to engage in legal work and the legal profession and builds upon – but offers something district from – progressive legal approaches such as movement lawyering, law and organizing, and community lawyering. Inspired by scholars of critical race theory, this quality of critique also requires self-reflection, humility and a commitment to critical praxis—a groundedness in the grassroots. 

The Bernstein Institute for Human Rights and NYU Law Review invite you – community members, practitioners, academics, movement leaders, and donors – to join our conversation on critical legal empowerment methods, explore what’s needed to create an American legal ecosystem that is truly just, and situate the emerging US legal empowerment movement within a global context. 

The vision and design of the symposium has been led by a dynamic group of community justice advocates: Nixon Boumba, Ariadna Godreau-Aubert, Antonio Gutierrez, Lam Ho, Jay Monteverde, Jhody Polk, Alejo Rodriguez, and Jayshree Satpute. In partnership with our Advisory Committee members, we engaged in a process of collective inquiry, action, and reflection to co-create a gathering that solidifies the knowledge that comes from lived experience. Together we’ve created a gathering that democratizes knowledge production, breaks down hierarchies between “expert” and “audience,” and centers the voices and demands of directly impacted communities in the rebuilding of just systems that work for all of us.

*All panels will have live transcription and be recorded. Workshops will provide captioning through Zoom.

• CLE will be offered to New York barred attorneys.

• This event is appropriate for both newly admitted and experienced attorneys.

• Symposium awards up to 10 hours of CLE in the Areas of Professional Practice category and credits are both transitional and non-transitional. 

Register for #CriticalLE here

Symposium Schedule of Events

Community Action Workshop #1 Friday, February 18 10:30-12pm EST

Injustice is a reality, and the very structures of legal systems in the United States often act to depower and limit community voice and direction. This pre-conference session will examine the shape of this access to justice problem within the four issue areas, introduce critical legal empowerment, and encourage participants to identify challenges working within a highly regulated, lawyer-driven system.

#CriticalLE Community Keynote: Wednesday, February 23, 2022 7:00pm EST

Join us for a night creative activism as we kick-off the Symposium with live music from Lakou Mizik (Haitian Music Collective) and poetry from Gia Kagan-Trenchard and Alejo Rodriguez. 

Conference Day 1: Thursday, February 24, 2022

9:15-10:45 AM  What is Critical Legal Empowerment?

This opening session will introduce critical legal empowerment (theory, methods, impacts) and its embrace of community-based efforts to democratize and redistribute legal power. Panelists will discuss how critical legal empowerment builds upon, but distinct from other progressive legal approaches, including its focus on creating space for communities to directly engage in legal work and the legal profession. The discussion will also situate the burgeoning US legal empowerment movement within the context of the wider and more established global movement.

11:00-12:00 PM, Community Action Workshop 2 

Organizations, communities, and activists are already striving towards justice. Specific strategies such as community paralegals, accompaniment, community-driven litigation, and community-based monitoring are being used to implement legal empowerment. Told through real life examples, anchor organizations will share how they use legal empowerment methods to address injustice and invite participants to share their community empowerment strategies.

12:30-1:50 Community Paralegals: The Power and Promise of Frontline Justice Advocates

In this session panelists will introduce the role and impact of “community paralegals” or frontline justice advocates, both here and around the world. The session will explore the ways community paralegals engage in the practice of law and challenge the legal profession’s monopoly of the law. Speakers will also reflect on the training and resources needed to develop agents of change within communities drawing from firsthand experience within environmental justice, immigrant rights and prisoners’ rights. 

2:00-3:20 The Transformative Power of Accompaniment

This panel will examine the power and promise of accompaniment. Informed by grassroots’ experiences in designing and deploying accompaniment programs within the immigration and criminal legal systems, panelists will share how accompaniment bears witness, expresses solidarity, and transforms power within courts and other legal settings.  

Conference Day 2: Friday, February 25, 2022

9:15-10:35 AM Community-Driven Litigation: Transferring Legal Power to Community

Panelists will discuss the need for community-driven litigation, a legal empowerment approach to litigation that transfers legal power into the hands of community members. The session will explore strategies for how community organizers and attorneys can work together to advance litigation led by the experience and expertise of impacted communities, and reimagine the relationship between attorneys and clients from one of an “expert” to that of “collaborator.”

10:45-12:05 PM Challenges in Advancing Legal Empowerment in the US

This panel will explore what’s needed to move forward with a robust critical legal empowerment methodology in the United States. Speakers will discuss current efforts to reform the regulation of legal practice (unauthorized practice of law), secure increased financing and support for legal empowerment programs, and a need for the legal profession to recognize community advocates as essential members of the legal ecosystem.

12:35-2:05 PM Looking Ahead: Building Alternatives, Transforming Structures

A forward-looking discussion on how critical legal empowerment helps build alternative, transformative structures rooted in self-determination. Panelists will share reflections from their work in advancing prisoner rights, labor rights, climate justice and corporate accountability in Puerto Rico, Haiti, Florida, and beyond.

March 4, 2022 10:30-12 EST, Community Action Workshop 3 

Legal empowerment approaches do not come without challenges, including concerns about unauthorized practice of law (UPL), funding difficulties, evidence gaps, and delegitimization by the legal profession. This post-conference workshop will provide participants a chance to conduct power mapping to identify actionable items to push forward the power of the community.

The #CriticalLE Symposium is organized by the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights and NYU Law Review with generous support and partnership from the Bernstein familyThe Legal Empowerment Network, convened by Namati, the Mott Foundation, and the Tuttleman Family Foundation. 



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