Mark Aaronson on Judgment Based Lawyering

Published on: Author: Richard Boswell

Accessibility, responsiveness and judgment are critical attributes of good lawyering. These are topics which Professor Mark Aaronson explores in a recent article titled Judgment Based Lawyering: Working in Coalition appearing in the peer-edited Journal of Affordable Housing. More than just a discussion of these critical attributes, Professor Aaronson describes how the teaching of these valuable lawyering skills is at the core of the UC Hastings Law clinical program. Professor Aaronson’s unique perspective as a law professor and founding director of the UC Hastings Community Justice Clinic (CJC) come from his nearly fifty years of experience as a public-interest lawyer working with grassroots organizations on social-justice issues.

The article takes the reader through and thoroughly dissects a case handled by students in the Community Economic Development Clinic, which formed part of the broader CJC from 2007-2019. Perhaps it is not entirely accurate to describe this as simply a case, for in reality it was a series of matters undertaken by faculty and students in the clinic on behalf of community groups involved in shaping and monitoring a development plan for the California Pacific Medical Center’s (CPMC) project in San Francisco. The plan when it was first announced portended a major impact not just on the economy of San Francisco but also on how the nearly $2.2 billion project might benefit underserved members of the city’s low-income residents. Community groups would do this through the vehicle of securing a Community Benefit or Development Agreements from CPMC as it sought approval of the development project from the city.

Professor Aaronson has written extensively on the role of judgment in lawyering, and here he uses the case of this project to illustrate and highlight its importance and how each component—accessibility, responsiveness and judgment—is pivotal in providing quality representation whether in a group or individual setting. The subtext here is that these valuable lessons can be taught within the environment of the law-school clinic. Professor Aaronson speaks with the authority of someone who has dedicated his entire career as a public-interest and cause lawyer. In exposing the complexity of the challenge to community groups, he begins by laying out the complicated history surrounding the development plan and the way in which he and his students immersed themselves in its intricacies. He also weaves in the all-important political contexts of poverty, income inequality, and disempowerment into a deeper understanding of how law can be used and its limitations “in the furtherance social justice.”

Professor Aaronson effectively lays out the importance of lawyers who work in coalition with their multifaceted community “group” clients. Particularly important is his illustration of the value of lawyer accessibility and responsiveness in both understanding and addressing the complexity of client needs and having a sense of the “big-picture issues” as they come up at every stage of the representation. With this must come a “shared sense of purpose.” As Professor Aaronson points out, how this representation unfolds “rests on [the] lawyer’s sense of role and self-discipline in role performance.”

In the end, this is not just a story of a coalition of community groups working together with their lawyers and law students to generate sufficient political pressure to cause the largest fee-for-service private hospital chain in San Francisco to alter its development plans to address the complex needs of low-income San Franciscans. It is also one of the larger lessons that social-justice lawyers can learn about how they can work with their clients in a complex group undertaking. As Professor Aaronson states, “[g]ood lawyering encompasses much more than the law. In progressive lawyering especially, the decisive factors are how one interacts with client groups and what in addition to the law one takes into account in a specific context.” Working in coalition requires lawyers attuned to the importance of judgment-based lawyering.