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Title: Peter Irons Interview II
Narrator: Peter Irons
Interviewers: Alice Ito (primary), Lorraine Bannai (secondary)
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: October 27, 2000
Densho ID: denshovh-ipeter-02-0005

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LB: We're talking about your decision to go to law school and some of your work using the law, but I recall that you talked earlier about going to the SNCC conference and being struck by the suggestion that you should cut all ties to the system. Did you ever reflect on that in law school that actually when you were going to law school and taking on cases, you actually were part of that system that you had once wanted to cut ties with?

PI: Well, that's a very good question because in, for many people and probably with myself, the kind of attitude you have when you're full of youthful zeal and enthusiasm, rebellion, become tempered over time and you learn that you must make some compromises. Many people make too many compromises. But one thing I learned -- and I think this came out of my work in the Civil Rights movement as well -- we were cutting our ties with the system, we were opposing the system, we were going to jail and prison, we were willing to do that, but at the same time, we had and we needed very good lawyers to defend us in these cases. Many of the convictions were unjust and were, should have been opposed, that you can use the system to people's benefit without really becoming part of the system.

There was a story people told during the Vietnam War that I think sort of illustrated this. That the, the Vietnamese people, the Viet, the NLF, the National Liberation Front, they would sometimes pick up and use weapons from the Americans in the South Vietnamese Army that they had captured or that were abandoned and used those and turned those around. So the idea was that you can, you use every weapon you can find, even if it's the enemy's weapon. If the legal system is fundamentally unjust, then what, what you can accomplish within that system depends on how you use the tools that the system gives you. And so it's, it's a very difficult -- I never wanted to be part of the system in the sense of, "oh, the law is the answer to all these problems, that it, it's the best and most perfect system that has ever been devised." Most people know that that's not true. But most people also don't realize the extent to which the system operates at its very basis in an unjust kind of way, because people who are poor, people of color, simply don't have the resources and the skills to fight for themselves. And that's what I thought lawyers should do, or at least those lawyers who, who had a real social conscience.

One of the things that struck me in law school was at the very beginning when I, my first week at Harvard Law School, the law school newspaper published a survey. They'd given us all a questionnaire when we showed up for orientation. And the survey showed that exactly two-thirds of my classmates -- and there were about 500 of us -- wanted to go into public interest law. That's what we said, two-thirds of us. And this was a time when Ralph Nader was very popular. He was a Harvard Law School graduate. In fact, the idea of doing environmental work and civil rights work and all of this kind of stuff, the feminist movement was really getting started. Three years later the placement office at Harvard Law School releases its annual survey of what jobs people are actually taking. The 67 percent of us who wanted to go into public interest law had dwindled to one percent. People had made choices. And you shouldn't fault them for doing this, you know, and it's sort of natural. They had gotten seduced by the corporate law system. They'd been given summer jobs that paid huge salaries for virtually no skills. And they'd made these choices. Now, I never made that choice. I had decided to go into law school teaching when I finished Harvard, which I did.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 2000 Densho. All Rights Reserved.