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Angelo N. Ancheta and Rebellious Lawyering

Rebellious Lawyering is about achieving social change by empowering clients

“’Give us something we can use.’ For those of us engaged in the practice of law for social change, this is a familiar admonition directed at scholars who have developed theories on the transformation of law and the legal system.”

“Professor López’s Rebellious Lawyering is something all of us—professional and lay lawyers—can definitely use.”

“The central tenet of rebellious lawyering is the empowerment of clients. Progressive lawyers who engage clients in problem solving can shift power from themselves to clients, enabling clients to collaborate in the process of social change. In this way, the lawyer-client relationship can provide a seed for the shifting of social arrangements that can empower subordinated groups.”

“As López states, ‘if people subordinated by political and social life can learn to recognize and value and extend their own problem-solving know-how, they . . . may gain confidence in their ability to handle situations that they would otherwise experience as utterly foreign and unmanageable, with or without a lawyer as representative.’”


“López argues that progressive practice must be a partnership in which individuals minimize their traditional roles as lawyers and clients; lawyers and clients must share power and combine their overlapping practical knowledge of the world in order to solve problems of subordination.”

“[A]ll of us are lawyers: whether we are helping ourselves, helping others informally by being ‘lay lawyers,’ or helping others formally as professional lawyers, we constantly draw upon our personal experiences to interpret and transform the world through problem solving.”

“Professor López manages to combine theory with an accessible and detailed picture of what progressive lawyers, legal workers, and organizers do on a day-to-day basis. This alone makes the book required reading for anyone employed in a nonprofit legal office or in a progressive law firm.”

“By challenging existing notions of progressive legal practice and community organizing, López demonstrates how all of us accommodate—and resist—change in our daily lives, and how, through working together and sharing power, we can bring about positive changes that improve our collective existence.”

“[I]nstitutional and personal inertia often prevent lawyers from shedding their traditional roles as the sole players in advocating for social change through the legal system.”

“Rebellious Lawyering is organized around the basic dichotomy between rebellious lawyering and regnant lawyering.”

“[O]ne of the major conflicts that arises in nonprofit legal services offices revolves around the tension between “direct service” work and “impact” work.  In direct service work, lawyers focus on individual client representation, spending much of their time preparing particular cases for trial or hearing in order to assist the individual client. In impact work, on the other hand, lawyers focus more on institutional reform, using legal means (typically litigation) to bring about systemic changes that affect a larger number of people. Offices constantly struggle with this tension as they strive for maximum effectiveness with very limited resources.”


“Under López’s theory, the direct service-impact dichotomy definitely exists, but it masks a more fundamental tension: client control versus lawyer control. If clients and others in the community are allowed to participate more in the problem-solving process, the tension shifts away from a lawyer-based litigation strategy to a client-based empowerment strategy. The task of lawyer and client is to determine what the client needs and wants, and to see if the client or others can help make the change. Certainly, the tension between service and impact work would not disappear, but a more client-centered practice could lead to more innovative strategies, such as client organizing and lobbying, that could achieve the desired ends without having to rely exclusively on the work of lawyers.”


“Narrative—or storytelling, as López prefers to call it—is the primary vehicle for persuading others to act….”


“All people see the world through ‘stock stories,’ those combinations of existing knowledge and methods of perceiving and processing information that give order to the world.”


“Narrative allows one to convey to others, an audience, a story designed to inform the audience’s understanding of a problem. If the story is persuasive, it can compel the audience to change the world in some way so that the problem might be solved.”



“The inherent contradiction of progressive law practice is perceiving the world in a certain way, trying to change the world through problem solving, and then realizing that you cannot do very much because the problems are too large and the people you are trying to persuade do not perceive that there is any problem at all. In other words, advocating for change under a system of laws and legal institutions that disfavors change and limit possibilities for change is the dilemma with which progressive lawyers and legal workers struggle every day.”


“The lessons I have learned from my own work as a progressive lawyer point in two directions: toward clients, as López explicitly suggests, and away from law, as López implicitly suggests. Community lawyers, particularly those who work with racially-subordinated groups…. must remind themselves that they are part of the community for which they work.  The lives of their clients are not that different from their own. Personal empowerment can go hand-in-hand with the client empowerment that results from rebellious lawyering. Sharing power and responsibility can make the work easier for everyone.”


“Consistent with the idea of client empowerment is the notion that rebellious lawyers have to transcend the conventional definition of lawyer when they want to be community activists. We are often told that law is not the same as politics. This is wrong. Law is all about politics, and progressive lawyers have to understand and use political means to achieve the lofty goals they often set for themselves. Lawyering that attempts to overcome the basic contradictions of progressive practice must expand the lawyer’s work to include a broad range of legal and political activities.”


“If López is correct in saying that lawyering is just one form of problem solving, then problem solving to empower subordinated communities must challenge the ways in which power is held within society, not just the way power is allocated between lawyers and clients.”

“Ultimately, the success of rebellious lawyering will be measured in the same way that all forms of activism are measured: by how close we have come to realizing those elusive, but not unattainable, ideals of economic and social justice.”

“Rebellious Lawyering is a cogent reminder that because people share common experiences, by working together they can make a difference.”


The above is excerpted from Angelo N. Ancheta, COMMUNITY LAWYERING, 81 Cal. L. Rev. 1363 (1993) (see also Angelo N. Ancheta, COMMUNITY LAWYERING, 1 Asian L.J. 189 (1994)).








Angelo N. Ancheta is the Executive Director, Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center and Associate Clinical Professor at Santa Clara University School of Law.

Visit here for a bibliography of Professor Ancheta’s work.


J.D., University of California, Los Angeles, 1986

M.P.A., Harvard University, 2000

A.B., University of California, Los Angeles, 1983

Areas of Specialization

Constitutional Law, Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Immigration Law

Affiliations and Honors

  • Director of Civil Rights Project, Harvard University (2000-2005)
  • Executive Director, Asian Law Caucus (1994-1998)
  • Director, Legal & Advocacy Programs


#Rebellious Lawyering

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