[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]
For over forty years the People’s Law Office (PLO) has been representing “people and their movements for justice and liberation.” Founded following the Democratic National Convention protests in 1968, PLO has represented people working with the Black Panther Party, the Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society, prison activists incarcerated in Attica and Marion, Puerto Rican Nationalist activists and prisoners, Irish Republic organizers, prisoners on death row, and more recently anti-war protestors who were part of the massive takeover of Lakeshore Drive on March, 20th 2003. Their work has also led them to represent victims of police abuse and torture, most notably relating to the heinous crimes of former police commissioner Jon Burge (convicted on June 28th, 2010). The group has a unique feature among activist groups in that they generate income through some (not all) of their work, which has enabled them to take strides like purchasing a 4 floor building at the corner of Milwaukee and Ashland – giving them long stability not achieved by many of their peer groups.
Since having AREA’s founding meeting in March 2005 at the offices of Video Machete (now occupied by Young Chicago Authors), the 2nd floor tenant of PLO which occupies the 3rd and 4th floors, I have wanted to feature the inspiring work of PLO in this publication. As we envisioned this issue, dealing with community institutions of all varieties, I knew that it was time to highlight their work and hear their perspectives on building and maintaining their truly unique organization. I sat down with a group of 6 of the 11 current members of the law office in late May 2010. For those interested in learning more about PLOs history, visit their in-depth online archive at peopleslawoffice.com
-Daniel Tucker (May, 2010)
Roundtable Interview Participants:
Janine Hoft (JH) Attorney at PLO since 1984; Michael Deutsch (MD) Attorney at PLO since 1970; Brad Thomson (BT) Paralegal at PLO since 2004; Jan Susler (JS) Attorney at PLO since 1982; John L. Stainthorp (JLS) Attorney at PLO since 1980 ; Sarah Sarah Gelsomino (SG) Attorney at PLO since 2008.
Daniel Tucker (DT): Did the People’s Law Office (PLO) set out to build an institution when you began? What are some of the experiences or events that have made you realize you were building an institution?
Michael Deutsch(MD): It’s a hard question to answer because we started out responding to what was happening politically in the country. And I still think we are somewhat reactive in terms of responding to people’s needs, protests, movements.
Now, obviously, we are some kind of institution because we have been around for so long. But I don’t know to what extent each one of us sees it that way that we are maintaining and building an institution. For myself, I have always felt we have needed to bring in new, young people, so that as we get older the institution will not die.
One of the things we spend a lot of time dealing with is our own survival. It’s always difficult to make sure we have the financial resources to continue the work. The work is representing people who are involved in struggle or who are victims of the government or police. Our institutional purpose is to maintain ourselves financially so we can continue to represent people who need our legal services.
Jan Susler (JS): I do agree that we have a total lack of foresight in terms of where are we going to be in ten years. We have often tried to figure that out, how are we going to sustain ourselves, but I think its just doing what we do. There isn’t any magic to it; it is through our own stubbornness to keep it alive even if there isn’t income, which sometimes there isn’t. So I don’t think we are good business people.
At the 20-year anniversary we did a big celebration and it was mostly with hindsight and not with foresight. The same thing happed at 30. And then when we got to 40 years, it went the other way and we started to look forward. It was because of our own, individual mortality – the realization that we are probably not going to be able to do this forever. Even though we have always had the attitude that we should bring in new people and work with students, I really felt like our 40th anniversary coincided with this resurgence of young people. It seems to me there is a huge difference in the law schools, [National Lawyers] Guild chapters, and the general militancy in the movement today. I feel like that inspired us! And around our 40th we were asking if we were going to do an event and it was the young people’s influence in saying that if we do it, we don’t want it to be looking back; we want it to be looking forward as well. It’s kind of like parents learning from their children. Not in a condescending parental way, just sort of needing that injection of new energy and forward looking.
Janine Hoft (JH): Other big moments have been related to our representation in the media – are people identified in stories as Jane Doe Lawyer or as Jane Doe, Partner at the People’s Law Office? We see that in the media sometimes some people would be identified as of the PLO and other people would be identified as the individual. We had discussions about trying to change that and that was when I realized that we did want to promote the entity above the individuals and that was something we valued.
Brad Thomson (BT): The way I have perceived it is that these decisions made out of financial necessity have been the deciding points in terms of how to sustain the office. Making it from a project to a sustainable long-term institution has been exactly answering that question: how do we keep the doors open. So my question would be, in the last 20-30-40 years, what types of cases did you stop taking? Those events when you say ‘that’s why we don’t do those kinds of cases anymore because they are really hard and it’s hard to make any money off em’…
JH: We still take those cases! That’s the problem!
JS: That’s the rule, if it’s hard and expensive – take it! If it’s easy and gets you a lot of money then run the other way…
Jani was just in court on Monday and people paid her $20 a head for the Broadview [Detention Facility] protests.
JH: I think more than it being an institutional decision, it was an individual decision. For me, not doing criminal defense was when those bike thieves of mine got locked up and put in jail. Not many people want to do criminal defense because who wants your client to go off to jail? If you do civil work and you don’t get a bag of money, well that’s sad, but at least they aren’t going to jail.
And when I first started working here in 1984, I thought, ‘I am going to be the bread and butter person. I am going to do immigration, real estate closings, and divorces. But nobody told me to; this was just something that I thought I should do to keep the money flowing. I don’t know why I had a business-minded idea like that…
Then I think it was 10 years later and people were like ‘what are you doing and why are you doing that?’
Another thing happened, when we looked at our finances and realized that it was the big cases, the wrongful convictions, the large damage police brutality cases, which kept us going. It was not the small cases. It wasn’t the small beat-up or the divorce cases that I was doing (and disrupting the entire office because I was screaming the loudest during those cases!). That was another reason for me to scale back; I realized its not helping us move forward. When I came back from [a leave of absence in] Syracuse, I remember people asking me, ‘how strongly do you feel about doing divorce cases?’ and I was like ‘I hated doing divorce cases’…because other [attorneys] were like, ‘we don’t want you to do them.’
DT: The vast majority of the people interviewed for AREA are generally informal groups or they are non-profit organizations (NFP). Something that has come out in talking to a lot of these NFPs is that they have strayed from their original missions and have turned to just working to reproduce their own jobs. That is how people talk critically about their organizations, when we push them to do so. But law offices are a different economic model…it is interesting to hear you say that part of your “mission” is to ‘keep the doors open’. I am sure a big part of it is about jobs, but the way I understood it was that you need to keep the doors open because something like THIS, the PLO, needs to exist. And there are different things you need to do, to keep those doors open. So can you talk about the experience of seeing your organizational model somehow maintain while the people you are working alongside have models which don’t keep them afloat?
MD: I think one of the reasons is that there is a unity between our political work and our money-making work. Certainly there are problems with it sometimes, but as lawyers we serve these movements and organizations around these cases and that is how we fund ourselves. So we don’t have to create funding alternatives. We don’t have to raise money, get grants, and please someone to get our money. Our money comes directly from the legal work we do. Although there have been times when we have thought about getting a 501C3 status and being more of a center for legal rights, where we would get grants like the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. But we never went that way.
DT: On your website, there was a reference in the section on the founding years, to creating a law firm that didn’t suffer from “lawfirmism.” Can you explain that?
MD: Well law firms are very hierarchical. There is a senior partner, a junior partner, a senior associate and a junior associate, then interns. When we first started, we tried to have it be a total collective, where everyone was equal: the person that swept the floor, and the secretary, the most experienced lawyer would all come to meetings, were paid the same and there was no hierarchy at all. That didn’t really maintain itself over a long period of time. Now, I think that we have maintained a certain lack of hierarchy, kind of in how people get paid and how decisions are made (though financial decisions are made by the partners now even though originally, everybody had a say in the financial decisions). There is [now] some hierarchy between non lawyers and lawyers. And certainly based on experience there is some hierarchy between lawyers. But, I still think it’s far different than your typical law firm where the senior partner just gives orders.
JS: I don’t think we’re very formal. Even if we make rules, nobody remembers what they are. We redecide things. There is a lot of flexibility. We have a decision making process which is pretty open, we don’t vote or anything like that.
Back when the Law Office was started, there were a lot of law collectives. And almost none of them still exist. I don’t know if I could say why we exist and they don’t.
John L. Stainthorp (JLS): We’ve been very lucky is one thing.
DT: What were some of those law collectives?
MD: There was the New York Law Collective, the Bar Sinister in LA, and probably every major city had a law collective. I don’t know if I see us as really a collective, I think we are some where between a traditional law office and a law collective. The informality, the way we make decisions, the lack of hierarchy to some extent, and of course the nature of our legal work all make us different than a typical law firm, even one that does primarily civil rights work.
JLS: We have been unbelievable to the extent that we have avoided disputes around money. Of course, money comes up every now and then, but you look at a lot of organizations and someone at some point became dissatisfied about money and went off and sued people or whatever and the whole thing just explodes. People are definitely concerned about money to the extent that if you don’t have money, you’re not going to survive, but no one has come here because they think they are going to get rich. So that has been huge.
MD: We have also avoided personality conflicts to the extent that there are divisions among us, where a group of people split off, or we divided up. And this is true not just for personality, but also political differences. I remember over the years we have had some kind of intense political differences, but we have always been able to keep going. None of them have caused anyone to say they cannot work together anymore because their politics are so different. We have been able to work through whatever differences we have had, which is amazing because that’s one of the reasons groups break up. Like rock bands.
Sarah Gelsomino (SG): I am the newest lawyer in the organization; I’ve been here a year and a half. I think the fact that money isn’t the primary decision maker makes a huge difference in the philosophy of the organization. Me coming in new, I know that I don’t have to put aside my own political work or life to learn how to be a lawyer and the kind of lawyer I want to be. That kind of philosophy is more unique than you can even imagine in the legal world.
Going back to your first question, I don’t think I would have used the word institution, but I do think I see PLO as an institution. Because coming through law school, this is THE civil rights law firm in Chicago. If you want to do political work and be a lawyer, this is the place to be. Law students emulate each of these [PLO] lawyers and so I think individually I see [them] all as institutions. Brad and I were in a judge’s chambers recently and someone came in and said “do you represent the defendants or the plaintiffs on this case?’ and I said “plaintiffs” and she said, “So you work at Peoples Law Office? They’re my heroes! Can I get an interview there?”
DT: From the outside, it seems important that the lawyers have some level of autonomy to pursue their individual interests.
JH: For me the autonomy and freedom was a strength because you couldn’t do everything [as an individual], so at least you got to be around it. That is really valuable.
JLS: People have different interests, but obviously they aren’t really contrary to one another. Nobody is saying they want to represent the Tea Party, for example. That would be a big problem. That’s an extreme example, but you can imagine there would be some things where people might have a principled objection [to working on or around it].
JS: I think one of the reasons we can have this level of openness is because … the way the office started really was about political unity and stuff that was happening on the left and who the office decided to represent. And it’s evolved some, and opened some. But on some level we haven’t strayed so far from those roots. The individual interests which people are able to pursue with the support of everyone else is around some sense of political unity. I mean not every law office would let me work for more than 30 years on the Puerto Rican Independence movement and the political prisoners. But part of that is because really part of the founding of the office was defending the Independence movement. So we haven’t strayed that far. We aren’t a political organization, but there is a way of seeing social change and social movements that people coincide in. It’s like an unstated conversation almost.
MD: Here is an example. Particularly my work, but some other people’s work, around the Palestinians. A lot of law offices, if you were out there supporting Palestinians, there would be someone in that office who was Jewish and a Zionist and who would be offended by that. That could create friction between the lawyers. Thankfully we don’t have anyone like that.
JS: Just to be clear, we do have Jews! But we support that work.
MD: And another one is related to Puerto Ricans too. And that is because we were representing Puerto Ricans who were accused of being terrorists, FALN putting bombs in Chicago. Not everyone in the office, I suspect, thought that was a good idea…But there was enough of an understanding of why people would be motivated to go to that extreme in relation to Puerto Rico and the colonial situation, that people, while they might not agree with that, wouldn’t say they couldn’t be in the same law office as someone working around those cases because you are representing those people.
Both of those issues could create a breaking point in a law office.
JS: And I would say that, because people have come and gone from PLO, generally the reason people have left is because of the economic instability. If people were going off to have families, to buy houses. And if you don’t know if you are going to get paid or how much of your pay you are going to get, then some people aren’t comfortable with that. Some people either didn’t have a 2nd income or they had partners who wanted more stability. And some people elected to leave because of that. I’ve been here since 1982 and I don’t know of people who left because of political differences or differences over which cases to take.
BT: But I think that what brings people together isn’t a political unity, but it is a shared principal – a commitment to social justice, with a broad understanding of that. I think that’s why PLO continues to exist, rather than some of the other organizations which came out of the New Left movements of the same era which didn’t survive because they were along party lines that were very specific and everyone had to agree on. But I think a law office has a certain degree of flexibility, because as someone said, you don’t necessarily need to agree with your client all the time or think that their politics are perfect, but you need to believe that they have the right to pursue those interests. They have the right to pursue their vision of social justice.
DT: Michael said something about being generally reactive. I would imagine some of that is inherent with being a law office. But I am curious if you have thoughts on how PLO in the future could be more strategic (if you think of “strategic” as being the inverse of “reactive”)? Also if there are cases that you feel like have changed the orientation of the office (not politically, but where your priorities are) it would be useful to know about those examples.
JLS: One example would be the police torture cases starting in the 1980s. Before that we didn’t have that type of case. Starting with the Andrew Wilson case, which led to a ton of other cases and work. That took the office in a different direction that it had been before. [The Wilson case] then revealed all these other cases. I guess you could say there was a choice at that point. You could either say, let’s use that to win the Andrew Wilson case, or you could push for a much broader strategy in terms of dealing with all these other people, to get the cops fired, to get the police to investigate it, and then to get people indicted. That was a situation when it could have just stayed in one case, and instead people in the office decided to really aggressively go after it and broaden it. And who would have thought that it would end up with a former police commander [Jon Burge] being on trial in federal court this very day.
JS: I don’t think it’s just reactive. Almost everyone [at PLO] does speaking and writing. Some do more legal writing, like the “Civil Rights Police Misconduct Litigation Reporter” which several members have contributed to where you analyze cases in order to give people more rights and less defenses to the police. Some of us do other kinds of writing. I don’t consider the [writing or] teaching aspect to be reactive: it develops new ways of dealing with the law or new people to do it the way we do it.
BT: I think that one thing the office could do in terms of being proactive about being reactive, I guess you could say, is not waiting until the government goes after certain movements to build relationships with them. I think that has happened to some extent in the past. After 9/11, being able to respond to the needs of Muslim-American, Palestinian-American, and Arab-Americans. And more recently, much younger [ecological] activists and in the Green Scare facing charges of terrorism: Our office is now involved with one of those cases, but I think we could have been more connected to that community and members of those movements prior to representing them [in cases]. I wonder what other movements there are which we should be paying attention to? Something we have done a bit and are doing now is that Jan, Sarah and I are looking to do Continuing Legal Education training [for lawyers] on Military Law to help war resisters who are refusing to deploy or any number of issues that service members and veterans are facing. That’s a way to serve the growing GI and Veterans movement. I am wondering what other movements and individuals are emerging which we could connect with in similar ways to make sure they know we are here?
MD: One thing that we haven’t really done that much in the immediate past, but we have done in the past, is that we don’t really bring affirmative litigation challenging some kind of treatment or law or class action lawsuit. For the last ten years we have said, ‘there is this problem, and we should bring a civil suit, class action suit, an injunction to challenge it’. That would be more proactive, to look at a problem and then fashion a response to. I think that’s something we should look at in the future.