Proximate Conviction: Why Every Young Attorney Should Listen to Bryan Stevenson

By: Jason Arter

On April 29, 2015, I had an opportunity to listen to Bryan Stevenson present a message on the injustice in America. Bryan Stevenson is the founder, and executive director of The Equal Justice Initiative. His work addresses the injustice and biases that the poor and minorities experience. Mr. Stevenson’s awards for his work are numerous. Some of the more prestigious among them are: The MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award, The ACLU National Medal of Liberty, and the Thurgood Marshall Medal of Justice. The message of inequality among the poor, minorities, and how we as a society can change this inequality was the central theme.  The Blumenthal Spirit Square is a small theatre, but a large attendance was present on this night.

I call it a talk, but it was much more. It was conviction, determination and passion wrapped up into a charismatic delivery. It was extremely motivating, and at the end of the evening I left feeling a sense empowerment and a desire to make a change in my community. Mr. Stevenson also had a similar message at a TED talk in 2012. It was a huge honor to be able to see this similar message live, given the present circumstances in Baltimore, Maryland.

Bryan Stevenson founder and Director of the  Equal Justice Initiative. Photo courtesy of NPR.

Bryan Stevenson founder and Director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Photo courtesy of NPR.

No attentive person could have left on Wednesday night without taking something from the presentation. The presentation at its core is a message about changing the racial issues that have plagued society for 150 years. There are four basic concepts to Mr. Stevenson’s message—two of which made a lasting impression on me.

He started with the concept “proximate.” Proximate is more clearly defined as location in time, closeness, or nearness to an event. Mr. Stevenson stated that a person couldn’t really make an effective change if the proximity at which our action is made is not within a close relation to the change that is sought. Real change is not going to occur from arms length or in the periphery.

The second concept Mr. Stevenson spoke about was “conviction.” As attorneys, we rely heavily on the knowledge in our brain. We master the rules, learn to apply them correctly, and attempt to make a difference. Unfortunately, that is not enough. We must find a conviction in our hearts to find that area of the law that impassions us to make a change. As attorneys, we must marry and intertwine conviction and knowledge. When we do, we are making a change not just as attorneys, but also for society. We can overcome the crippling effects of racism, mass incarceration, and other injustices that exist within our communities.

Regardless of the view from your chair, whether prosecution or defense, we must remember the passion and conviction that has lead us to this career. We are problem solvers. We are tools for change in the positive. When, as a profession we move forward, let us remember that change is never easy. Change is always met with resistance. We must stay the course, and hold to that conviction that inspired us.

Social injustice problems can be overcome. Imagine if just one person braves the consequence and stands up for the rights of another when others are afraid, a ripple effect could occur. We would be proximate with a conviction to overcome injustice.

What is the take away? Simply this: as young attorneys we are getting ready to graduate and we are preparing to face a new profession. That said, without getting truly involved, attempting change from a distance would not be enough. As young attorneys, we must challenge ourselves to look at the underlying problems and address them. Mr. Stevenson stated that crime is a really a reaction to the underlying problems that have never been addressed. Without a closer relationship with people or our clients, the prospect of a positive change is unlikely.

Imagine if more than one person felt this way… wouldn’t our profession, and our society as a whole, be great?

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