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February 05, 2005

the role of lawyers

There has been, lately, much discussion about the future of the labor movement, in terms of the direction of the AFL-CIO, possible mergers among Internationals, and so forth. I have been trying to figure out why I don't express, and really don't even have, more definite opinions about these issues. I think I've put my finger on it, and am interested in whether other labor lawyers have the same sort of feelings.

From the beginning of my work as a union lawyer, I was always indoctrinated by our senior partner Buddy Cooper -- the first CIO lawyer in the Southeast, and one of that great generation of fearless labor law pioneers -- that internal union politics were none of the lawyers' business. Some of the reason for this principle, I suppose, was business self-interest: he didn't want to lose the opportunity to continue to represent one of his clients, on account of having backed the losing side in an internal election. But there was also more principle to the principle, I think -- it was based in part on his belief that the setting of union policy is up to the membership and to the people they elect to represent them. Now this doesn't mean that Buddy was a complete agnostic when it came to matters of union politics; he refused to represent some unions, when their leadership stood for things that he didn't like. And on some matters of policy, such as race discrimination, he used his influence to help nudge his clients in what he thought was the right direction. But by and large, his motto was to stay out of internal union stuff, and to do your lawyering to help your clients achieve their own goals.

This still feels right to me, as a description of the proper role of outside counsel for unions. It does have a little bit of that same moral ambiguity that is an aspect of just about all lawyering -- the somewhat odd notion of making it your life's work to pursue your client's goals even when they're not your own. But I think it's right.

And so, I end this entirely link-less blog post by wondering whether other people feel the same way, or whether I ought to rethink it.

Posted by Sam Heldman at February 5, 2005 01:01 PM