A Conversation with Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke

04.22.2022

Student Experience Visitors
Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights

In April, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law was proud to welcome Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Justice, for the 2022 Pope & John Lecture Series on Professionalism. The hourlong conversation with Dean Hari Osofsky covered Clarke’s philosophy of “lawyering for good,” working against housing discrimination, and her admiration for the late John Doar, the former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights who served under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Clarke opened by highlighting the importance of a lawyer’s professional responsibility. “To be honest, the many facets of our responsibilities as attorneys don’t get discussed enough, particularly considering how fast these issues have evolved,” she said. She cited the continuing rise of social media and virtual appearances in court as a result of the pandemic as two technological advances that the legal world has been slow in addressing for the current and next generations of lawyers. “Not withstanding these new challenges, attorneys must continue to focus on their cases, their clients, and use their unique skillsets to better the community. Lawyering for good.”

Clarke’s address focused on the question, “How best to lawyer for good?” She highlighted the work of former Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, a prominent figure in the fight for civil rights legislation in the 1960s before his assassination in 1968. In 1963, a small group of lawyers met at the White House to hear President John F. Kennedy speak about the need for robust federal civil rights legislation. Attorney General Kennedy spoke the longest, stating that members of the legal profession who swore an oath to the constitution were obligated to advance the rule of law and obligated to use their specialized knowledge and skill to advance civil rights. “Kennedy’s call to action remains just as relevant today,” she said. “I am inspired by his message and agree that we have an obligation to use our skillsets to help ensure that the legal system and our nation’s laws are an embodiment of this nation’s ideals.”

John M. Doar, former Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights under President Kennedy and President Johnson’s administrations, was another individual who Clarke said represented the notion of “lawyering for good.” Doar led the government’s response to events such as the prosecution of KKK members in the south during the 1960s and the admission and protection of James Meredith, the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi,  and he was also lead counsel for the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry staff for President Richard Nixon in 1973. Clarke specifically highlighted this quote from Doar: “I’m a lawyer. I like to take on difficult cases. To me, success is seeing that justice is done. That the constitution is preserved and fairness occurs.”

Clarke also spoke about her efforts in protecting fair housing—an issue that has disproportionately affected Black and brown people. She specifically addressed redlining, a discriminatory practice in which financial services, banks and investment institutions refuse to offer credit services to Black, brown, and/or low-income individuals in a neighborhood because of their race or national origin. “Redlining and housing discrimination are as old as America itself,” Clarke said. “For centuries, Black, indigenous, and other people of color have been denied access to homes, property, and credit.” In 1968, because of national advocacy groups, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, which created legal pathways for individuals to challenge discriminatory practices. “Fifty years later, there’s no question that our country has made strides addressing housing discrimination. We have made progress,” Clarke said. “However, a problem that was centuries in the making can’t and won’t disappear overnight.”

As the conversation and subsequent Q&A came to an end, Clarke called the Northwestern Pritzker Law community to action. “I challenge all of you today to examine what you are doing to contribute to and improve your communities. It’s a tangible burden that we all carry.”

The Pope & John Lecture Series on Professionalism focuses on the many dimensions of a lawyer’s professional responsibility, including legal ethics, public service, professional civility, pro bono representation, and standards of conduct. The lecture was established in 1991 by the Chicago firm of Pope & John Ltd.