"I was not trying to start my own agency. . . . representing homeless people for a year, maybe two, and then going off and getting a real job-that was what was on my mind," says Doug Lasdon '81, who founded the Urban Justice Center in 1984 and continues to direct it. He has been back at the Law School as a distinguished practitioner in residence this fall semester, and on November 9, he delivered "A Lawyer's Life: Reflections on Nearly Four Decades of Representing Poor People in New York City" as part of the Dean's Distinguished Lecture Series.
Lasdon began his lecture by thanking three of his former professors who still teach at Cornell Law School: Kevin Clermont, E.F. Roberts, and John Barceló. "As I think back about these and other professors," he said, "it is not any particular lesson they taught but who they were as people and as teachers that I still remember best."
When Lasdon graduated from law school in the early 1980s, New York City was experiencing a surge of homelessness, with thousands sleeping on the streets. Lasdon became involved with people and organizations working to help the homeless and, with the aid of a grant, was able to launch his own project: a one-person legal services operation based in a burned-out, unheated building in East Harlem. This was the beginning of the Urban Justice Center.
"I was the only lawyer going to soup kitchens, talking to homeless people, and, frankly, sitting down and having lunch with them, and that's where I really learned of their problems," he said. One of the first lessons Lasdon picked up as he conducted his outreach clinics was that he should offer to help people gain access to "cash assistance," never "welfare." "It was the age of Ronald Reagan, and, very sadly, very painfully, of the anti-welfare campaign, and the lies about welfare queens."
He noted that politicians like Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich continued this misinformation campaign through the 1990s. "It was very painful, because we didn't have the power to overcome that. I know who was on public assistance, and they weren't welfare queens, and they weren't cheating."
Lasdon recounted some of the Urban Justice Center's major cases, including victories for young adults transitioning out of foster care, for married homeless couples, and for can collectors. "I used to say: if it pisses you off, there's a claim. And I think mostly I was right."
The Urban Justice Center now runs twelve projects with a staff of 200. Lasdon recruits advocates dedicated to particular issues, who then raise their own money and have control of their own projects. He observed, "If you give people that freedom, to do it the way they want, they will bring energy and creativity and ambition and be aggressive."
"It's been a great career," Lasdon concluded. "I've done meaningful work, I've had a lot of fun, I've met great people, and I work in a great community. So it can be done, and you can enjoy it."