The Shape of Justice

Ryan Snow '18
Guest Columnist

It’s not always easy to keep in mind why we’re in law school. However we plan to use our education, the daily demands associated with getting that education often distract us from our goals and the values that inform them. The law school institution itself, for better and for worse, can feel isolated from the real-world issues that inspired and continue to inspire so many of us to become lawyers.

Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Photo courtesy of University of Virginia School of Law.

Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Photo courtesy of University of Virginia School of Law.

On Friday and Saturday, February 2 and 3, the second annual Shaping Justice Conference brought together students, attorneys, and advocates from around the country who are dedicated to transforming the law in order to advance justice for all people. This year’s conference, titled “Shaping Justice in an Age of Uncertainty,” gave attendees a chance to engage with some of the greatest and most pressing challenges facing our nation and legal system today, and to hear from and connect with practitioners working on the front lines of the fight for civil rights and equal justice.

Panels tackled a broad range of issues, including the absence of justice for the Black community; voting rights; the intersection of reproductive and racial justice; environmental racism and climate change; violence against trans people of color; and the use of “big data” analysis in the criminal justice system. Workshops and plenary panels focused on giving students concrete tools for self-care and sustainable lawyering; navigating law school with values and spirit intact; maximizing opportunities to work on justice issues as a firm lawyer; and a legal observer training on safeguarding the constitutional rights of protesters.

A key feature of the Shaping Justice Conference is its emphasis on integrating legal and non-legal perspectives. As a lawyer serving the public, and especially serving vulnerable communities with a variety of needs, it is not sufficient to work only within the legal system. Lawyers must learn to work with organizers and activists within the client community to identify strategies that balance addressing immediate needs with building effective litigation, which can often take years and itself require close coordination with, and balancing interests between, diverse stakeholders.

“For me, one of the most incredible aspects of the conference was the opportunity to hear from practitioners who are really on the front lines of such a diverse array of fields, and to learn about how they envision those fields’ futures,” said Cameron Duncan ’19, one of the main conference organizers. “During the Environmental Racism panel for example, Professor Marily Nixon of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law spoke about the increasing importance of environmental lawyers and activists working to address the human repercussions of global climate change, in addition to continuing to combat the sources of environmental harms. She noted that, as a result of rising water levels alone, by the year 2100 more than 400 cities and towns in the U.S. will be uninhabitable, no matter what we do now to reduce emission of greenhouse gasses. That absolutely blew my mind.” Much of that panel’s discussion tackled the complex legal, social, and economic challenges associated with relocating entire communities as they are displaced by anthropogenic climate change, which is already being undertaken in coastal regions in Alaska and along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts.

From left to right: 2018 Shaping Justice Award recipients Jeff Kerr '87, Jeree Thomas '11, and Kim Rolla '13. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Harris.

From left to right: 2018 Shaping Justice Award recipients Jeff Kerr '87, Jeree Thomas '11, and Kim Rolla '13. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Harris.

Another key feature of the conference is its emphasis on issues facing communities underserved by the legal community, and on confronting the ways in which the legal system, its doctrines, and the way they are traditionally taught privilege certain perspectives—particularly wealthy, white, male, and hetero perspectives—over others. “The Shaping Justice Conference is important because it raises the collective consciousness of the law school about social justice issues, and helps set a culture of inclusion,” said Toccara Nelson ’19, who helped organize two panels co-sponsored by the Black Law Students Association. “I felt our panels were excellent in highlighting legal issues facing the marginalized, such as communities of color and the LGBTQIA communities, and that is what this conference is about.”

Many students expressed the importance of the law school hosting a conference dedicated to public service. “Shaping Justice was an incredible experience, and I am very grateful that the University of Virginia School of Law makes it clear that they support public interest students by hosting this conference,” said Molly Cain ’20. “To me, the 1L curriculum can often feel very removed from what I want to work on, and Shaping Justice was the exact energizing force I needed to remind myself why I am in law school. It was awesome to hear firsthand about the work public interest lawyers actually get to do, and to remember that I’m in law school so that I too can do that very needed work.” This sentiment was echoed by Halima Nguyen ’18, who helped organize a panel co-sponsored by If/When/How. “It was a humbling experience to be surrounded by so many people who have done such awe-inspiring work, and to get the opportunity to learn from their experiences in the field. I left the conference with a renewed sense of purpose and passion for my advocacy work.”

The annual conference is sponsored by the Public Interest Law Association, Program in Law and Public Service, and Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center, with individual panels and workshops organized primarily by student groups. The conference is part of a broader move to increase investment in the public service community and opportunities available at the law school, with the goal of making UVa Law the nation’s premier destination for students interested in public service. 

“I was inspired and rejuvenated by the Shaping Justice Conference—from the energy and dedication of our students to the passionate and zealous advocacy of our panelists, alumni, and keynote speaker,” said Crystal Shin ’10, Assistant Professor of Law, Director of the Program in Law and Public Service, and one of the main organizers of the conference. “It is my hope that everyone who attended our conference was inspired and encouraged to continue to fight the good fight in order to advance justice for all.”

This year’s keynote speaker was Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the nation’s oldest and most successful civil rights organizations. Clarke’s address highlighted the myriad challenges now facing civil rights advocates and the communities they serve, including a renewed assault on voting rights; a resurgence of white supremacist groups; crises of discrimination in the criminal justice system from policing to mass incarceration; and the current administration’s retreat from civil rights enforcement and pattern of appointing federal judges who are openly hostile to civil rights. Clarke described in detail some of the efforts of the Lawyers’ Committee and other groups to safeguard civil rights, and engaged attendees in thinking creatively about how to meet these challenges.

The conference also honored UVa Law alumni who have dedicated their careers to public service. Jeff Kerr ’87 was honored with the Shaping Justice Award for Extraordinary Achievement for his 25 years of service as General Counsel to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Kerr described his passion for animal rights as stemming from the knowledge that non-human animals share many of the same experiences, feelings, and social behaviors as humans, and paired his promise to continue working for animal rights with a plea to treat non-human animals as we would want to be treated ourselves. 

This year’s Shaping Justice Rising Star Award was given to two outstanding recipients, Jeree Thomas ’11, Policy Director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, and Kim Rolla ’13, Housing Team Coordinator/Attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center and a Lecturer at the Law School. Thomas brought the room to tears with a stirring acceptance speech in which she described her perspective on life as a daily gift in having the opportunity to serve others, and service to others as the ultimate expression of love. Rolla followed with her similarly inspiring frame of public service as a gift of personal growth—that you cannot do this work without being changed by it, and that by doing it honestly and consistent with our values, we become better people.

The complete conference program with panel and speaker details is available at