When you talk to Blake Strode about what he wants, you’ll learn that his ambitions are not for himself. His ambitions lie in transforming the justice system so that the services offered meet the needs required.
It’s a tall order, but it’s one that he believes attorneys are best positioned to tackle.
“We are actors in this system,” Strode said. “We lawyers are responsible for this legal system and all of the many messes it has created. And so every single person with a J.D. and bar number to my mind has a responsibility to be active on these issues.”
Strode grew up in the St. Louis area, then attended the University of Arkansas and Harvard Law School. He returned to St. Louis shortly after graduation in 2015, in the aftermath of the Ferguson uprising. Strode received the Skadden Fellowship, which provides two-year fellowships to a handful of top students each year who want to work in public-interest law. He became executive director of ArchCity Defenders in January.
The organization provides legal services with the goal of reducing barriers to social services, advocates in court through litigation and seeks criminal justice reform. ArchCity, established in 2009, has led such undertakings as suing the city of St. Louis to shut down the city’s Workhouse, a medium-security institution criticized for inhumane conditions. It also has filed numerous lawsuits to end the practice of jailing people with outstanding municipal fines, and it has represented protesters jailed after demonstrating against police brutality.
Since joining ArchCity, Strode has worked to implement partnerships between his organization and activist groups that work on similar issues, such as Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment and the Organization for Black Struggle. The ultimate goal, he said, is to shift the discussion on issues involving equity and social justice, and eventually to close the justice gap — a mismatch between the legal services available and those that are needed.
“The vast majority of legal work is for high-paying corporations or high-net-worth individual clients,” Strode said. “In my view, the need is greatest among low-income, working-class, poor and homeless individuals.”
There’s nothing wrong with taking a high-paying job, Strode said, but he observed that law students rarely are presented with opportunities to serve marginalized clients. After graduation, the job market and the pressure to pay off student loans incentivizes attorneys to take lucrative, private-firm work, which contributes to the justice gap, Strode said.
Attorneys are in a strong position to effect change, Strode said. Those working in private firms still have the option of public service through pro bono work and financial contributions to legal nonprofits, Strode said. Change also needs to happen on a systemic level, though, which is tougher to accomplish.
Still, he remains optimistic. The region is large enough that it has a lot of resources, but compact enough that people from different groups know each other, in addition to a new crop of activists roused by events related to Ferguson, Strode said.
“That kind of talent and passion combined with the fact it’s a pretty small region where everyone knows each other means to me that we can transform the system,” Strode said. “We can transform the way we do business here. We can transform the face of criminal justice and housing and homelessness.”