The Day The Lawyer Jokes Died
Anuj Malhotra 12 Feb 2017

The Day The Lawyer Jokes Died

For the past two weeks, across the country, lawyer jokes have fallen silent. For the past two weeks, as attorneys from around the nation have poured into airports to assist immigrants caught in the crosshairs of a quickly implemented executive travel ban, people have been proud of their lawyers, families have been grateful for them, strangers have been feeding them. And none of those lawyers did what so often is the foundation of jokes and derision — they did not charge a fee to anyone, in any amount. Out of the chaos and panic that erupted, there has grown great appreciation for the legal community.

When President Drumpf issued his Executive Order on January 27, attorneys responded [an earlier version of this story suggested the order was signed on January 30 — the order was signed the 27th and the outpouring of attorney response began on the 30th]. From every corner of the profession, a remarkable show of justice burst forth. This was not a showing of partisan politics, but rather a devotion to justice from lawyers across the political spectrum. Devotion not to ideology but to equity. Yes, most who showed up at airports to lend their expertise to isolated travelers likely opposed the President’s action. But who they cast their vote for, or whether they had voted at all, no longer mattered. They arrived to make sure our adversarial system of justice was going to work for those who needed it most.

This was not the first time lawyers have responded to the urgencies created by executive polices on immigration. In 2014, there was a mobilization of attorneys who banded together to resist the Obama Administration’s family detention policies. Then California Attorney General Kamala Harris, later elected to the U.S. Senate, convened a meeting of lawyers, issuing a call to action to ensure that no immigrant child be allowed to face the Immigration Court system, risking deportation to an often hostile country of origin, without legal representation. She asked the assembled counsel, essentially, to leave their politics at the door. No matter their views on prevailing immigration laws, they had an obligation to make sure that these children had lawyers, that children should not go into court alone to face a complex judicial process that perplexes and intimidates even most U.S. citizen adults. She said that, without counsel, the promise of our democracy, the fairness of our system of justice, was just a dream.

In 2017, with even more divisive politics at stake, the legal profession gave itself that very same kind of speech, honoring our democracy, reveling in the confidence they have in a system that only lawyers can make fair. Attorneys from major law firms, small law firms, immigration attorneys, non-immigration lawyers who just wanted to help, seasoned pro bono counsel, legal aid lawyers, law students, and professors of all backgrounds converged on major airports to help those who were confused and frightened. The lawyers came from across the political spectrum. They shared a belief that navigating the immigration legal system, especially at a time of massive and urgent need, was near impossible without the help of the legal profession.


Make no mistake about it, the response, while admirable, was chaotic. Without time to create infrastructure, the flood of volunteer lawyers and avalanche of communications sometimes overwhelmed efforts to organize and build the mechanics of coordination. But communication networks and systems were quickly established by those on the ground. At the end of the beginning weekend, more than 900 lawyers were connecting via email and social media. They jumped into action as families were being separated, young children being isolated from their parents. Their efforts had concrete results. For example, lawyers helped find safety in this country for the aging, sick parents of a U.S. citizen, enabling him to provide for them the care they need. Attorneys secured passage to the U.S. for an Iraqi interpreter who had risked his life to help American troops. These were people who already had endured an arduous, years-long vetting process. These were the people for whom the gargantuan pro bono efforts were being launched.

Legal aid organizations began to assume the role of convenors and repositories of assignments and collaboration. Immigration lawyers were thrust into mentorship roles, litigators became problem solvers, corporate attorneys became avid learners. Lawyers flocked to airports, though some were asked to leave because too many volunteers had overwhelmed the sites. Many arranged to have equipment delivered, food provided, and technology set up. Committees were formed to deal with the press, government officials, and airlines.

Some attorneys began to file habeas petitions. Others engaged in legal research, interviewed and provided support to family members, or worked together on legal issues and policies. Translators were summoned, conflict checks were performed, everyone moving rapidly, sometimes appearing to be moving randomly, battling the volume and the urgency. A volunteer manual was quickly drafted, teams of firms worked on coordinated issues, and intake forms were created and distributed. Information and advice was exchanged by the minute, with everyone working toward the common goal of providing access to justice for those most in need.

That first weekend was an exercise in chaos and Constitution. While protests erupted at airports, lawyers worked feverishly to help vulnerable clients in ways that only lawyers can do. Knowing that their purpose was justice, and that the processes depended on fairness, hundreds of lawyers worked impossible hours throughout the weekend. They knew that amid the cacophony they had to make the system work. No detained immigrant would be left alone, for our democracy does not work when the vulnerable are unaided and alone.

As arriving immigrants were slowly released from detention, tears flowed, cheers erupted, and the lawyers kept at it, continually learning how to deal with the next moment of urgency. Lawyers who spoke Arabic, lawyers who were angry, lawyers who were apolitical, lawyers who were Muslims, Jews, African Americans, Latinos, Republicans and Democrats lived a lawyer’s highest calling. They were serving those in need, serving an overloaded system, and making sure the tools of democracy were available and working. And as the emergency waned, ever so slightly, and the wheels of just turned as they should, not a single lawyer joke was to be heard.


David A. Lash serves as Managing Counsel for Pro Bono and Public Interest Services at O’Melveny & Myers LLP. He can be reached at The opinions expressed are his alone.

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