Seema Patel reflects on building power for workers ‘on the margins’

Anabel Sosa

As California approaches the end of hot labor summer, Seema Patel is just getting started. 

Patel serves as a practitioner in residence at the UC Berkeley Labor Center and a lecturer at UC Berkeley School of Law. For 20 years, Patel has advocated for low-wage workers’ rights. Previously, she served as clinical director for the East Bay Community Law Center, where she oversaw Berkeley Law’s eight community-based clinics and taught movement lawyering. She is also a Thomas C. Grey Fellow and lecturer at Stanford Law School.

The Labor Center sat down with Patel to ask more about the work she is passionate about, what she’s been working on during her residence, and what “movement lawyering” really means.

Labor Center: What are you working on during your year in residence?

Seema Patel: I’m working on a couple of projects in this role, including a law review article in which I’m delving into the role of the administrative state in building worker power. I am looking at what is the role that state and local governments play? But really, what role should they play in helping low-wage workers to build power in a sort of legal infrastructure in this country? 

I’m thinking about how to reach low-wage workers who are on the margins, who are not organized into formal labor unions, whether it’s because they are formally excluded from that right under the National Labor Relations Act, or because they work in industries or places where the traditional labor movement hasn’t yet reached them.

Labor Center: What is “movement lawyering” and how does it inform your work? 

Seema: In a nutshell, movement lawyering is about how public interest lawyers and legal advocates can promote social justice. How can we be lawyers in service of social movements rather than be lawyers who think of ourselves as experts in law and social change? When you get into law school, they really aggrandize what it means to be a lawyer. You’re going to get this fancy degree and you’re going to have this title and you have a doctorate and you’re going to be an expert and you’re going to have specialized knowledge. But, to what end? 

Movement lawyering is an approach to lawyering in which lawyers act in a supportive context and not in a leadership context. Movement lawyers work alongside organizations. They are there to serve the people most vulnerable and most impacted by the sort of oppressions that law brings.

Labor Center: How are you applying “movement lawyering” into your year in residence?

Seema: I’m writing a curriculum as my other project as a practitioner in residence. Everything I just shared with you about how to be a workers’ rights movement lawyer, there’s not a class for that yet and I think there needs to be. So one of the things I’ve been working on this year is actually a Class A course curriculum called “Workers’ Rights and Movement.”  It’s the class I wish that I had when I came to law school. Now I’m trying to put it together.

Labor Center: That’s all very exciting. After your residence is up in November, what is next for you?

Seema: I recently started a law teaching fellowship at Stanford. I’ll be teaching first year law students legal research and writing and federal litigation. I’m going to also continue to work on my own scholarship and writing. In a couple of years, I hope to go on the law teaching market and get a formal job as a law professor. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.