As part of the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday events on January 16, the Law School welcomed Khalilah Spencer, ’01, who presented “From Segregation to Elevation: Lawyers working with communities to rise up and fulfill the promise of democracy.”
Spencer, partner at Honigman LLP, is president at Promote the Vote (PTV), which successfully fought to expand voting rights in Michigan via ballot proposals in 2018 and 2022. Those expanded rights now include no-reason absentee voting and same-day registration.
Spencer, who also serves as Honigman’s inclusion, equity, and social responsibility partner, provided insights into what lawyers can do to advance their communities.
“We honor Martin Luther King today,” she said. “But behind Martin Luther King, there were many who collaborated with him to make change in the world, and many of those folks were lawyers.”
Four takeaways from the event:
1. Lawyers work—sometimes in the shadows—on important societal issues.
From Brown v. Board of Education to Obergefell v. Hodges and beyond, lawyers have been involved in vital issues around social change.
“Lawyers argued those cases,” she said. “Lawyers—the judges—decided those cases.” She added that, with the exception of Thurgood Marshall, who argued in Brown v. Board of Education before the US Supreme Court, we often don’t know the names of the lawyers involved in landmark civil rights cases.
Even outside the courtroom, lawyers make a mark on social issues with, for example, their pro bono work. “We’re asked to problem-solve the societal chaos that's around us, and we're asked to do so calmly as we advance our communities,” said Spencer.
While they sometimes work in the shadows rather than the limelight, “lawyers are expected to be calm in the face of that chaos.”
2. Activists’ journeys can start small, then grow.
Soon after starting her legal career, Spencer volunteered with the Detroit Branch NAACP, reading essays by schoolchildren on the topic “What does the civil rights struggle mean to you?” From there, she became more and more involved with the NAACP, which valued her legal expertise.
“That took me to another level of participation, recognizing that I had the benefit of understanding the law,” she said. “We started doing more in-depth voter education around the voter ID issue. At the same time, more strict voter ID legislation was being implemented around the country.”
Spencer and other lawyers brainstormed new ways to expand voting rights. “It really took a lot of us to say, ‘Okay, what can we do besides work a hotline on election day? What can we do besides follow the lawsuit we're probably not going to win?’”
That eventually led to the 2018 Promote the Vote campaign, which placed Proposal 3 on the ballot in Michigan. While the proposal passed, PTV’s work did not end. Last November, the state’s Proposal 2 further expanded voting rights.
3. Just as Martin Luther King Jr. worked with lawyers, lawyers need to work with communities to be successful in the social justice realm.
In her work on PTV, Spencer and other lawyers spent a lot of time drafting the provisions for the ballot measure. But they also relied on community organizers to help get out the message.
Many voters in 2018 didn’t know, for example, that there was a 30-day waiting period between registering to vote and being able to vote, that they needed a reason to vote absentee, or that they could sign an affidavit on the ballot if they didn’t have a photo ID.
Additionally, the 2022 PTV campaign was complicated by misinformation and disinformation about the ballot proposal as well as competing initiatives to restrict voting access.
“Yes, we knew what the ballot proposal said, but we didn't know how that translated to the average person; lawyers are not PR people,” Spencer said. “We had to work with others on how to talk about the issues. In collaboration, that's how we can work with our communities to push democratic principles.”
She added that, in the context of MLK Day, Martin Luther King was a great orator and a great leader, but he could not do what he did without others. “He needed social workers, politicians, and lawyers.”
4. Clients want to know what social justice work the firms are doing.
When Spencer started her career in 2002, law firms weren’t discussing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI); environmental, social, and governance (ESG); or social responsibility issues in general. But that has changed, especially since the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Now, there is much discussion of these issues, irrespective of the type of law firm.
“I respond to a lot of DEI inquiries, and they're from all kinds of clients,” said Spencer. “They want to know what the law firms are doing with respect to DEI, what they are doing with respect to ESG, how much they participate in pro bono, what they contribute to.
“It shows how society is changing and looking not just at accountability from a public interest, but also in private practice. What are these law firms doing to contribute to society?”