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Coolies, James Yen, and Rebellious Advocacy
Asian American Law Journal (2007)
  • Bill Ong Hing, University of San Francisco

Those of us who engage in progressive legal work need to be constantly reminded that we do not know everything - that we are not knights in shining armor swooping in to save subordinated communities. We should be collaborating: working with rather than simply on behalf of clients and allies from whom we have much to learn. Though lawyering for social change is arduous work, there is much to gain in these battles against subordination, not simply from the potential outcome but from the collaborative process itself: as our clients gain strength and confidence, we too are renewed. Thus invigorated by the talent, spirit, and innovation that our clients and allies bring to the table, we aspire to bring that same sense of renewal to those with whom we work.

As a legal services attorney, a law school clinical instructor, and a volunteer with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), I am constantly amazed by the talented clients and non-lawyer allies I have encountered. From my contact with such allies I have drawn the invaluable lesson that the fight against discrimination - in essence, the fight against subordination - is one that community lawyers wage most effectively with allies and clients. In their work, these allies demonstrate that the struggle requires skills, techniques, and approaches that, unfortunately, conventional law school classrooms neglect.

If we seek to become more effective collaborative lawyers, then we should keep our eyes open for individuals from whom we can learn. Long before I became a lawyer, I met such a person named Y.C. James Yen. Though perhaps little-known among contemporary community lawyers, Yen's work has merited accolades all over the world, as well as broadened and enriched my own perspective of progressive lawyering.

Indeed, Yen's approach fits well within the theoretical lawyering framework advanced by Jerry López, Lucie White, and Ascanio Pomelli. These scholars, who are grounded in ongoing community work, have challenged us to re-imagine our roles as community lawyers. They advocate a collaborative approach that respects clients' decision-making capacities, seeks allies in the pursuit of social justice, and is open to learning from clients and community partners.

In this article, I first provide some background on Yen and describe his incredible work in Europe, China, and the Philippines. I then revisit the scholarship of López, White, and Piomelli as their theories and experiences pertain to community lawyering in the rebellious or collaborative style, and I relate Yen's historic work to the philosophy and concepts they advance. My hope is thus to remind contemporary rebellious advocates of collaborative possibilities.

  • public interest law,
  • community lawyering,
  • rebellious advocacy,
  • Y.C. James Yen
Publication Date
Citation Information
Bill Ong Hing. "Coolies, James Yen, and Rebellious Advocacy" Asian American Law Journal Vol. 14 (2007)
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