When famed basketball star Len Elmore decided to leave his career in order to become a lawyer, he not only brought with him the confidence and wits he had learned on the court, but also the terminology. While the phrase “one on one” may be a basketball term, it has also been the focus of Elmore’s legal career, his life goals and his lecture yesterday entitled Practicing Law for Social Change.
The phrase “one on one” refers to Elmore’s belief that the most effective means of achieving social change is not through bureaucracy or violence, but rather, the use of legal knowledge to help one individual at a time defend his or her rights.
“I took a different path,” Elmore explained. “I wanted to be part of social change, but I wasn’t the quintessential social activist, I wasn’t involved in politics. I thought that attempting to change lives one individual at a time may be more effective than any politician, or any person in the limelight might be able to do.”
Elmore started his speech by giving the audience an insight to his beginnings and the forces that shaped his activist leanings. Elmore described himself as a “child of the 60s” and recalled the many injustices that he witnessed on television as a young child – mentioning Vietnam and the civil rights protests in the south as examples.
The television not only provided Elmore with a gateway to the wrongs of the world, however, it also introduced him to the glory of the legal profession. Shows like Perry Mason and The Law and Mr. Jones demonstrated to Elmore that there can be a world where the good persevere and the bad are punished: the courtroom.
“These were shows that also gave me a feeling that change could be accomplished … the good guy always won, always stood up for the voiceless, stood up for the powerless, and the good guy happened to be a lawyer” Elmore explained.
As Elmore grew – which, at 6 feet 9 inches he did quite well – sports joined activism and law in his list of passions. Basketball, however, for which Elmore originally gained his fame, was more of an “intervening” moment in his life than his ultimate destiny.
“It wasn’t really what I wanted to do” Elmore said. ” I always kept in the back of my mind that rather than watch the parade from the sideline, I wanted to march, I wanted to be part of the action”
So Elmore eventually left the halls of Madison Square Garden, where he played for the New York Knicks, for the halls of Harvard Law School. How does the basketball star believe he got accepted into such a prestigious institution? In addition to his “solid” LSAT scores and the fact that he was an English major at the University of Maryland College Park, Elmore believes his hand-written essay aptly conveyed the excitement and love that he felt for the powers of law. He said of the letter, “It showed a part of me – a bit of fallibility. The word ‘passion’ was important. I did have a passion for it [law]. It came through, it came through in the essay”
Upon graduating from Harvard Law School, Elmore’s first job was for the district attorney’s office in Brooklyn, New York. Elmore chose to work for the office because he believed it offered him an opportunity to “give something back” to the community and to “be proactive, utilize digression and be a symbol of things which are right.” An example of Elmore’s success in this spectrum was his crackdown on brutality and corruption in the New York City police department.
Due to financial constraints, Elmore eventually entered the private sector and provided athletes like himself with legal representation. Elmore originally intended to help these athletes give back to the community as part of his “one on one” view of social change, but he soon saw this as an impossibility. As a lawyer, Elmore could not feel at ease with the environment of dishonesty and duplicity that surrounded his athletes.
“Once you’re a lawyer, regardless of what else you do, you’re still a lawyer – you’re held to a standard that’s higher than that of other professions’ standards … If you can’t make the choice to be on the right side on that bight line of ethics, that’s fine, but this profession is not for you,” he said.
It was on this note of honesty and scruples that Elmore left the aspiring lawyers in the audience with some parting words of wisdom.
“You have to formulate your goals” Elmore said. “You have to make some choices. You can be the social activist looking for change, or you can do it behind the scenes … use your education and use your privilege to benefit the community first, and, most importantly, speak for the inarticulate, act for the powerless.”
This concept of forging law and scruples clearly affected at least one future attorney in the audience.
“I have always had an interest in community service. This lecture showed me the way in which I can combine that interest with my interest in the law. I see now that I can do both,” said Sam Klein, ’07.
Archived article by Lauren Hirsch
Sun Staff Writer