David Zisser spoke to Clearinghouse Review in New Orleans about working as a community lawyer in Gulf Coast communities while being based in Washington, D.C. He was in New Orleans to train other attorneys at the Shriver Center’s Community Lawyering Training Program in June 2013.
Zisser is counsel in the Community Development Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Working primarily in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, he gives transactional legal assistance to nonprofit organizations and supports community organizing and advocacy campaigns and coalitions with legal and policy research and advocacy. His client organizations work on affordable and fair housing, equitable development, community benefits, environmental justice, community health, and tenants’ rights.
Zisser has served as a Housing Fellow at the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, a volunteer community organizer with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and a volunteer community lawyer with South Brooklyn Legal Services. David earned his law degree from UC Hastings College of the Law and his Masters in City Planning, with a concentration in Housing and Community Development, from UC Berkeley in 2007. He graduated cum laude from UCLA in 2003 with a B.A. in Sociology and a minor in Public Policy.
What are the challenges of community lawyering?
Just how different every group is and how we have these frameworks and models that aren’t going to fit perfectly with every group. You have strong personalities in different groups. You have disagreements within community groups, and trying to get past those into compromise, into consensus, is one challenge.
One of the biggest challenges is in a coalition. For instance, you may have an organization in the coalition that wants jobs, but you also have an organization in the group that wants environmental justice protections, and those are really their priorities. They don’t really care about the other one that much. Getting them to commit to each other that both of these are our fight and that if we’re going to do this together, we have to accomplish both, getting people to see past their silos, past their specific issues and to a more holistic, coalesced vision is one of the important challenges.
Another challenge is knowing when we should facilitate and take the lead at meetings or in strategy development and when we should step back and let the organizers and the organized leaders in the coalition take that responsibility and be empowered to move forward. That’s a challenge. We find ourselves stepping over the line sometimes and having to check ourselves. And we find ourselves having to tell our clients, “We think this is an area where you all can take the lead. Let us be the lawyers, and you be the organizers and movers.”
What benefits from community lawyering have you seen in your practice?
One of the biggest challenges is in a coalition... getting people to see past their silos, past their specific issues and to a more holistic, coalesced vision is one of the important challenges.
For me, the benefits of community lawyering are so obvious, but a lot of people are unfamiliar with it. I think a lot of lawyers are really comfortable coming to the idea of litigation: “We’re going to litigate. There’s an injustice, and we’re going to solve it in court.”
That underlying threat of litigation is important as a point of leverage. But more immediately, a really important role of the lawyer is to listen to all the issues, concerns, and problems, find ways to back that up with facts and data, and then think about how the problems relate to the law—what legal avenues do you have to address the concerns and issues? The community groups, as brilliant and creative as they are, they’re not lawyers, so they’re not going to be thinking of it that way necessarily. But they will have the stories and the motivation and the connections on the ground.
We take tough cases sometimes that may have a small chance of winning, but from the client’s perspective, if they didn’t have lawyers involved—just like if they didn’t try other tactics—then it’s possible at the end of the road if they didn’t win, there would be regret and wondering. At least when we’re doing what we can, as long as we’re working hard, they can feel assured that they brought in the resources they could, and they don’t have to have regrets. They can be disappointed, of course, but at least they gave it a real shot. And I think they feel that, and they feel supported. That, to me, is mushy, but really important.
You can reach David Zisser at email@example.com.