Most fundamentally, said Rheingold, class actions can be the best way to bring about compensatory justice on a large scale. Consider, for instance, the 1995 case in which General Chemical Corporation compensated 60,000 northern California residents after a railroad car valve malfunctioned and released a cloud of sulfuric acid over the community. Class action lawsuits are also being deployed against bad actors like Enron.
"Well–" said panel moderator Patricia McCoy '76, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, after Rheingold and Feldman had debated amiably for a while. "The issues have been joined."
The conference at other times was a microscope, providing a penetrating view of the legal nitty-gritty. Terry Maroney '89, for instance, recounted how her five-lawyer team at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering prepared the legal briefs supporting the affirmative action admissions policies at the University of Michigan. During excruciating roundtable sessions, lawyers combed through briefs word by word, struggling to fit their arguments into the page limits imposed by the Supreme Court.
"You know that every word you write and every word you utter will be picked apart," Maroney said. "This is how law gets made. It's often quite bizarre."
One Supreme Court justice–Sandra Day O'Connor–par-ticularly riveted the attention of Maroney's legal team. Because O'Connor was seen as the crucial swing vote for affirmative action proponents, legal arguments were specifically tuned to her pragmatic frequency. Summoning as much social science as possible to demonstrate the efficacy of affirmative action, the lawyers enlisted the help of retired high-ranking military officers for a friend-of-the-court brief.
They made a good call. O'Connor wrote the majority opinion upholding the University of Michigan Law School's affirmative action plan.
"It was a slam dunk victory for affirmative action," Lempert en- thused in his keynote speech. "I've lived with this case for a number of years, and I don't think I've ever done anything as meaningful."
Lempert, as a distinguished professor of law and sociology at the University of Michigan, helped draft the law school's admissions policy and testified repeatedly on its behalf. He brought his own history to bear as well: as a new student at Oberlin in 1960, white students comprised 97 percent of the student body, a condition even more evident at Michigan, where he remembers just one black law student among a class of 1,100.
These days, 20 percent of Oberlin undergraduates are ethnic minorities, while 72 of the 406 students entering Michigan's law school last fall were African American, Latino, or Native American.
"Without affirmative action, we would not have a legal profession nearly as integrated as we do today," Lempert said.
In her keynote speech, Vanderbilt law professor Nancy King explored the sobering world of wrongful convictions. The young and vulnerable are more willing to confess to crimes they didn't commit, she noted, and the longer an interrogation, the more likely an undeserving suspect is to simply give in. Eyewitnesses get it wrong, lab technicians foul up the evidence, and lawyers let their clients down.
But in the end, said King, lawyers are now being granted opportunities to get it right. Lawyers with the New York-based Inno-cence Project state that 132 U.S. prisoners–including 12 on death row–have been freed thanks to post-conviction DNA testing. This, she said, is only the tip of an iceberg of unknown proportions.
All of which drives home a crucial lesson from Law and Social Change. Law is a profession–to some, perhaps, a calling–in which theory and practice can combine to change lives. It's an inspiring notion. College sophomore Joel Heller, a member of the student committee that helped organize the conference, said he was "impressed by how people were able to keep their Oberlin idealism" while still being immersed in the real world.
And more may be on the way. Dye reported that about 12 percent of Oberlin graduates currently go on to law school. The symposium's meals and receptions were designed to encourage dialogue between accomplished alumni and still-searching students. College junior Isabel Call, who is studying economics and religion, said she feels "obligated to get involved in social justice in some way" and was hoping to find an answer about where the law might fit in. Justin Hughes recalled hearing from a student who asserted a fascination with entertainment law and international law.
"Well, yes," he said. "Everyone wants to be J. Lo's attorney in Paris."
The professional connections will further strengthen this year with the unveiling of an Internet system for Oberlin-trained lawyers. Modeled upon a similar program initiated by Dartmouth, the system will enable lawyers throughout the country to track down fellow alumni and potential colleagues.
"We thought it would be a great way to lead to cohesion among people with similar interests," Kahn said. "We have Obies doing all sorts of things–it's unbelievable."
"We have to stay in the trenches," added Karen Florini '79,
a senior attorney with Environmental Defense and an Oberlin Trustee. "And
we have to keep fighting."