THE BLOG
02/03/2017 01:51 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2018

I Used to Be a Federal Prosecutor. Now, I'm Helping Immigrants at the Airport

For the past week, many lawyers, including myself, organized by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and International Refugee Assistance Project, descended in significant numbers to airports like Washington Dulles International and John F. Kennedy International to help those detained pursuant to Trump's un-American immigration ban.

A friend at Dulles last weekend posted a clip of protestors chanting "Thank you lawyers!" The Atlantic, and other outlets, posted stories like "An Army of Attorneys Descends on Dulles: They fought to gain access to travelers being detained, as hundreds of protesters cheered each new arrival." A friend started a Twitter hashtag #helpthelawyers as a resource for those wishing to support volunteer lawyers who were donating their time at airports around the country.

This leads me to wonder if this represents a new day for lawyers. Before I get all teary-eyed about it, let me say that I fully acknowledge that lawyers, as a group, have done just fine compared to, say, many of the thousands who lost jobs in the Great Recession and have not yet recovered. It is also true that lawyers on the right side of the political spectrum have over the past decades done very well at building legal social movement through organizations like the Federalist Society and Judicial Watch. Maybe it is because standing up for corporations and the well connected, judicial restraint, or a strong executive branch do not quite fit into the mold of Atticus Finch that these movements have failed to capture the public imagination.

Even my conservative friends will likely acknowledge that attorneys have, for the most part, fallen from their perch of being seen as the champion of the little guy. Matlock gave way to LA Law. During the dotcom boom, law firm salaries rocketed up, along with required billable hours. As some lawyers got rich, many became less happy. As law firm sizes grew and jury trials largely dried up, lawyers spent less time talking to "real" people and more time in front of computer screens.

The profession was then whipsawed by the Great Recession with the formerly unassailable big law shedding attorneys out into the street, many of them finding work as contract attorneys where they became a less glamorous, and less well compensated, cog in a big corporate wheel. As one management consultant put it, "The Industrial Revolution has finally discovered the legal profession." And so many lawyers stayed in front a screen, just a commodity, trapped under six-figure student loan debt.

But when I walked to baggage claim 15 last weekend at Dulles Airport, there was a decidedly different vibe. Young lawyers clustered on the floor doing research to support a lawsuit on behalf of those detained. A long card table set up with snack-food piled high, legal pads and name tags. Lines of lawyers held signs asking anyone who had information about detainees to come talk. Lawyers joined the call and response: "What does America look like? This is what American looks like!" And "real" people stopped by to bring snacks, fruit and water.

Left or right, conservative or liberal, I think this is why most people went to law school--I know it's why I did. To charge into the area, to make the deal, to do things that require expertise and skill, that above all, matter.

When I served as prosecutor, I elected to spend most of my time on domestic violence and sex assault cases. And when I started my own firm, I focused on representing employees who lacked the resources and often the knowledge to fight back against a hostile work environment, wrongful termination or corporate wrongdoing. Both involved fighting the good fight for people victimized by bullies.

Actions by the Trump Administration raise many unsettling, foundational questions about our democracy. As foundations crack and shift, there will be opportunity for acts of selfless heroism by lawyers. A chance for attorneys to replace the brass ring of partnership with a resume more like Justices Thurgood Marshall, William Rehnquist or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A chance to matter.

Tom Spiggle is author of the book "You're Pregnant? You're Fired: Protecting Mothers, Fathers, and Other Caregivers in the Workplace." He is founder of the Spiggle Law Firm, which has offices in Arlington, Va., Nashville, Tenn., and Washington, D.C., where he focuses on workplace law helping protect the rights of clients facing sexual harassment in the workplace and wrongful termination. To learn more, visit: www.spigglelaw.com