Which of the issues facing society are important to you? How can you help promote the change that you would like to see?
A lawyer's most important role is to serve as an agent of change – to voice the underrepresented and underserved, no matter the circumstance. Whether it is a recently disabled employee who suddenly lost his or her job, or a mother who suffered the brunt of domestic violence and the threat of homelessness as a result, lawyers have the unique opportunity to serve as stewards who provide everyday people with equal access to the laws that significantly impact whom and what they hold most dear.
If you are interested in or are simply intrigued by the idea of leveraging your legal career to serve the cause of social justice, know that there are many issues at the forefront, as evidenced by the constant stream of headlines that you see in the news or based on your own experiences as well as those around you. For many of these issues, there are talented, trained lawyers advocating on behalf of those impacted.
Social Justice Advocacy Certificate of Concentration
Stetson Law’s Social Justice Advocacy Certificate of Concentration provides a vehicle for J.D. students to develop their legal training to deal directly with these significant social justice issues, whether it is through legal practice in the public or private sectors, leading or advising nonprofit organizations, or engaging in public/government policymaking and community advocacy.
"There is always going to be work to do in terms of social justice advocacy, as it is the use of legal training to promote equal justice and opportunity in our society," according to Professor Judith Scully, Director of the Social Justice Advocacy Concentration. "Until we have a perfect society, which I of course don’t expect to have anytime soon, we need to constantly hold systems accountable in terms of respect for human rights."
What is social justice advocacy?
According to Professor Scully, “Social justice advocacy is really the training of students to promote equal justice and equal opportunity in our society, to use our legal skills beyond just representing clients but to maybe even take that into the context of representing causes and making sure that we, when we recognize injustices, use our skills to tip the scales back into balance so that there is actually justice achieved.”
How is social justice different from justice?
“Social justice and justice are the same thing,” Professor Scully said. “The problem is we often think of the legal system as the arbiter of justice, and often, that’s not true. The legal system is the arbiter of legal rules, and oftentimes, unfortunately, the court system doesn’t attend to issues related to justice. So, some of the justice issues that we would assume would be dealt with through the court system have to actually be dealt with outside of the court system.
“A social justice advocate recognizes the limitations of the law, and doesn’t accept that as a limitation on their work. Instead, they say, ‘If I can’t advocate for this sense of justice within the courtroom because of the way the legal rules are designed, I will continue to advocate for this sense of justice outside of the courtroom.’
“So, when we talk about social justice, we’re talking about a combination of legal advocacy in the courtroom and advocacy for social justice outside of the courtroom. The students who come to us are using their legal skills, but they’re using them in ways that are nontraditional in terms of advocating before the legislature, advocating before not-for-profit organizations, advocating before international agencies, and actually also advocating in the community — providing public education to citizens on issues related to justice that they may not otherwise have access to without a skilled legal professional bringing those issues to the community.”
What is a social justice advocate?
“A social justice advocate can come from any area of law,” Professor Scully said. “You can be a social justice advocate working in employment, you could be a social justice advocate working in education, criminal law issues, and corporate issues as well. There are definitely interests that run across the arena of subjects and that are taught in a law school that pertain to balancing society and creating equal opportunities for others.
“Any area of law can be considered a social justice advocacy of law. Social justice advocacy is really an approach to law, not necessarily a separate topic of law. A lot of students come to law school in general and Stetson in particular saying they want to change the world, they want to change the world for the better, and the Social Justice Advocacy Concentration program gives them an opportunity to do that under the guidance of mentors with advice on courses that they should take in order to develop the skills that they need to have the type of impact that they want to have in their chosen field of law.”
Why do students choose the Social Justice Advocacy Concentration?
“This program is really designed for students who are clear about how they want to impact the world, not just that they want to do good and they want to benefit society and they want to use their law degree in that journey, but that they really have a clear idea of what area of law they want to focus on in serving the public interest,” Professor Scully said.
According to Kristen D. Adams, Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Social Justice Advocacy Concentration, “When students come into SJA, they choose either the criminal track or the civil track, and it’s a porous boundary, so they can move between the two if they want to. Students who want to go into, for example, prosecution or public defense are likely to go on the criminal track. Students who want to go to work for a legal services organization, they are going to do the civil track. Policy could be either side.”
Whatever your end goal may be, the Social Justice Advocacy (SJA) Concentration gives you the opportunity to dive into an issue that you really care about, Adams said.
“A lot of our students do the concentration because they want to be full-time public interest attorneys, whether civil side or criminal side. A number of our students, however, do the concentration because they care about social justice, even if they’re planning on going into a private firm, for example, so not every student who does the concentration is going to do a career that is full-time social justice advocacy, but they are doing the concentration because it matters to them.”
Social Justice Advocacy Concentration Requirements
While every concentration requires students to take certain classes, obtain practical experience, and fulfill a pro bono requirement, the Social Justice Advocacy concentration in particular has the following requirements.
For the Social Justice Advocacy Concentration curriculum, students have mandatory courses, depending on if they choose the civil track vs. the criminal track. Beyond that, there are many courses for students to choose from, ranging from Children and the Law to the Food Law Seminar.
One popular course is, naturally, the Social Justice Advocacy and the Law course. According to Jasmine Mattear, 3-L, SJA student, “In the social justice advocacy class, Professor Scully talked about all the different areas where social justice advocacy can come up, from human rights issues to segregation and racial issues to women's issues to everything. You touch on everything in that class. I learned so much stuff that I didn’t know, and I loved it.”
There is a flexibility regarding the course requirements in the SJA Concentration due to the variety of social justice issues students pursue, according to Professor Adams.
“We have a list of approved courses, but we also request from the Associate Dean that certain courses count for some students because of their specific areas of interest. For example, I have a student that is particularly interested in the intersection of health, education and poverty, and so she took our medical malpractice course. That’s not an SJA course, but it is for her, and so given her particular area of study, we were able to ask the deans’ office to allow us to count that course for her, and so there’s a fair amount of individual tailoring that goes on as well.”
All SJA students must participate in an approved experiential learning opportunity related to social justice advocacy law, such as a clinic, internship, or externship.
These also run the gamut, as Stetson has over 300 clinic and externship opportunities available, many of which apply to students in this area.
“We provide them guidance not just in terms of their coursework, but in terms of their experiential learning, what are you doing outside of the law school that is helping you develop skills that will make you able to have an impact on the issue that you have chosen to focus on during your three years at Stetson Law School,” said Professor Scully. “We mentor them through that process, we also help them find pro bono opportunities that will match up with their coursework and their experiential learning and help them develop contacts in the arena that they have chosen as their area of expertise.”
“I supervise the Homeless Advocacy Externship,” said Professor Adams, “And one of the things I really love about our externship program is you get the kind of behind-the-scenes coaching that doesn't exist in real life. I can partner directly with the supervising attorneys, and if I see that a student isn’t getting a broad enough array of experiences, I’ll run interference for them. Nobody does that for you in real life! So I always tell students that, especially for my particular externship, yes it’s a great fit if you’re interested in homeless advocacy — it’s also a great fit if you’ve never had a job, or especially never had a job in law, because there’s so much coaching that goes on behind the scenes that it makes that first job experience very comfortable. It’s fun for me because I feel like I get to make sure that their first legal work experience is a good one.”
“Our concentration involves extensive faculty mentoring, the three of us as faculty directors divide up the students in the concentration and occasionally we’ll have someone else serve as a mentor as well,” Professor Adams said.
“We meet with the students regularly, we advise them on courses and careers, and also supervise their DRP, or directed research project, and that’s one of the concentration distinctives. We require that they meet with us once a semester, although they typically reach out more frequently than that, which is nice.”
Pro bono requirement
Students must complete at least 30 of the 60 hours of pro bono service required for graduation in the student’s approved area of social justice advocacy. This is fairly easy, according to Professor Adams, since a lot of social justice areas lend themselves to pro bono work.
Directed research project
All SJA students must complete an Independent Study Project or a Directed Research Project in the area of social justice advocacy approved by their mentor.
These projects give students the opportunity to really dig deep into something they are passionate about.
“Students are meant to go out and do something wonderful in the world while they are still in law school,” said Professor Kristin Adams. “So the student might choose to write a traditional scholarly paper for that, but they don't have to. They could write a policy manual for prosecutors or survey judges’ attitudes on something or write a whitepaper for the legislature or do a narrated PowerPoint that raises awareness on an issue. I had a student in the fall do a short film and her audience is actually high school and even middle school-age children who are thinking about a career in law. We tell them that the sky really is the limit with the DRP because it’s a requirement that goes above and beyond the regular graduation requirement. All of our students have to do either a seminar paper or another scholarly paper. Our project can be less formal because they’ve already satisfied that requirement. So we encourage them to get creative with it and to have fun with it because it’s really a way of them starting to have their legacy in social justice advocacy while they’re still in law school.”
“My DRP (directed research project) was on state attorneys and how their offices can be used to reduce recidivism rates and address inequities in the legal system because of their discretion,” said Jasmine Mattear. “I actually interviewed 16 state attorneys in Florida. I wrote a paper based on those interviews along with other research that I did.“
Student organization component
A unique aspect of the SJA concentration is that students are highly encouraged to participate in on-campus organizations, said Professor Adams. “A lot of our SJA students are leaders on campus.”
There are many organizations for students to participate in, from the Amnesty International to the Black Law Student Association.
“One of the reasons that we chose to start a social justice advocacy program is that it was already clear to us here at Stetson that there were many opportunities for students to become active in social justice causes,” said Professor Scully. “We have dozens of student organizations that focus on public interest issues including the Innocence Initiative, the Juvenile Justice Initiative, and several other student organizations.”
Social Justice Advocacy Concentration vs. Advocacy Concentration
The Social Justice Advocacy Concentration is distinct from the Advocacy Concentration, according to Professor Adams.
“In trying to figure out whether the student belongs more in the Advocacy Concentration versus the Social Justice Advocacy concentration, we’re looking at their particular interest. Are they more interested in developing the courtroom technique, in which case we’d send them in the direction of the Advocacy Concentration, or are they more interested in the policies of access to justice and social justice, in which case they would be more in our concentration.”
Students usually are aware of what the right choice is for them, said Adams. “I can’t remember an application that we’ve received that the student hadn’t appropriately self-selected.”
How do I know if a concentration is right for me?
“What the concentration does is to focus the student’s coursework and also to communicate a level of seriousness about the topic to a prospective employer,” Professor Adams said.
“I always tell students as they’re coming in, don’t feel pressured to do a concentration. You don’t have to do one. I tell them typically the way I recommend that they decide is to look at the list of courses, and if you think,
‘Well, that’s what I wanted to take anyway,’ then you should do the concentration. If you look at the list of courses and you’re very fearful that you won’t be able to take a lot of other courses that are also of interest, well then maybe it makes sense to take a couple of those courses, but don’t feel like you must do the concentration.”
What roles await students when they graduate with this concentration?
“A student who is focused on social justice advocacy in general can work in absolutely any field that they define for themselves,” Professor Scully said.
“Yes, you can be a social justice advocate in a prosecutor’s office. Yes, you can be a social justice advocate as I stated, in a corporate office. Yes, you can play the social justice advocate role even in a large law firm that does pro bono work. There are many opportunities for students who are really dedicated to using their law degree to further public interest causes to actually do so in the working world.
As a social justice advocate, you can be the attorney for a not-for-profit organization that represents homeless individuals. You can be an attorney for an individual who has been the victim of human trafficking. You can work either at a state level, national level, or an international level — there is a wide variety of causes you can represent.
The possibilities are endless, and we don’t attempt to define that for the student. We ask and are trying to recruit students into the social justice advocacy program who have already defined that for themselves where they want to use their passion and their energy to make a difference in the world. We might see some students who are really interested in immigration, or we might see students who are really interested in police brutality. We might see students who are interested in really providing zealous advocacy in the criminal defense system. It could be any one of those arenas. We don’t dictate to students how they define their social justice advocacy projects. They define it for themselves and we assist them in making their dreams a reality.”
How can an undergraduate student prepare for this path in law school?
“A student who is currently in college or who is thinking about coming to law school who is interested in becoming a social justice advocate really needs to become involved in the community,” Professor Scully said. “They need to educate themselves about the issue they feel passionate about, to read as much as they possibly can about that issue, and to find out who are the main spokespeople on these issues on both sides of the issues. For example, if you’re looking at an immigration issue, who is fighting to protect the rights of immigrant workers, who is claiming that the rights of immigrant workers are not that important. You have to understand both sides of the issue. So, if you are thinking that you want to use your law degree and your law career to fight for issues related to social justice, the first thing that you need to do is to educate yourself on the issue as thoroughly as you possibly can.
The second thing you need to do is to get involved with an organization or an agency that is already working on those issues so you understand who the main key players are and what strategies are working and what strategies are not. Then, when you come to law school, you have an opportunity to further develop your advocacy skills in terms of how to present an issue, how to research an issue, and how to argue an issue. You can combine the knowledge that you gained before you came to law school with the skills that you’re developing in law school to become the most zealous advocate you can in your chosen field of social justice advocacy.”
The Center for Excellence in Advocacy
Consistent with Stetson’s long-held mission and reputation for creating well-regarded advocates, the Social Justice Advocacy Concentration is housed in our nationally-recognized Center for Excellence in Advocacy. Through an array of specialized civil and criminal law courses, pro bono service opportunities, clinics and externships, advanced legal research and writing, multiple student and community organizations and one-on-one faculty mentoring, the concentration provides students with opportunities to gain familiarity and hands-on experience with historic and contemporary social justice initiatives and issues.
“The Social Justice Advocacy program gives us an opportunity to attract students who are not just interested in advocacy as it pertains to courtroom skills, but advocacy as it pertains to social justice causes,” Professor Scully said.
“We have created this program in order to attract students who have already defined for themselves that they want to make a difference in the world by using their law degree to help change the world to be a better place.”
Learn More About Social Justice Advocacy
Here is a small list of resources that can give you more insight about social justice advocacy and how you can make a difference now as well as in the future as a lawyer:
What is Social Justice Advocacy?
Stetson Law’s Social Justice Advocacy Certificate of Concentration
The United States Department of Justice – Civil Rights Division
Florida Commission on Human Relations
Topics: Law School Insider Tips