Spotlight: Professor Carlin Meyer

By: Lori Anne Vergara

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Professor Carlin Meyer has a renowned reputation for her professional and academic achievements; a simple Google search will return pages of information related to her legal career and involvement with New York Law School. However, there is so much more to be said about her amazing spirit and life, which cannot be gleaned from those sources.  During a recent interview with the editors of JustFamilies.org, Professor Meyer spoke candidly about her educational experiences and personal life. When we sat down for our interview, Professor Meyer had already begun the process of packing her belongings from her office in the Abbey Institute area. There were still books on the shelves, though, and she asked each of us to take one or two. As we chose books, she peered over and gave us her brief thoughts on the authors and their work. I was amazed at how much she could remember about each of the books and it made me realize just how passionate she is about discussing legal concepts and ideas.

Recently, Professor Meyer stepped down from her role as director of the Diane Abbey Law Center For Children and Families, recently renamed the Abbey Institute as part of the new Impact Center for Public Interest Law.  She is becoming emeritus in January 2015. Though I was not lucky enough to have her as a professor, I am still saddened to see her set out on the retirement track. I first met Professor Meyer at the New York Law School Gala last fall. We were seated next to one another, so we talked over dinner, and then we danced the night away to Motown classics, played by the live band. I remember thinking then that she was remarkably down to earth. During our meeting, I learned that she has dedicated almost 27 years of her career in academia to New York Law School. Having done so, she has been present through many changes at the school and in the legal profession. Professor Meyer has consistently been devoted to the Abbey Institute and to New York Law School students, whom she welcomes with open arms. What’s more is that she genuinely believes in us.

Pre-NYLS Experience

Professor Meyer attended Radcliffe College. After Radcliffe, she worked with a women’s living and working collective before heading to Rutgers School of Law, graduating in 1974. While at Rutgers she was enrolled in the urban poverty clinic, the gender and law clinic, and a constitutional law clinic in which she wrote an appellate brief to help halt the then U.S. war in Cambodia.  As she shared this anecdote, she reflected on her hopes that she could end the war with a brief. While some of us may think that her goal was overly ambitious, the truth is that this captures part of her essence. It shows that even though the odds were stacked against her, she maintained her position and used whatever she had in her power to further that cause.

Professor Meyer said that she desperately wanted to work for a union upon graduation, and for years kept a file of her 32 rejection letters (she had no labor experience). So her first job was as in-house staff in the national office of the National Lawyers Guild, where she honed her debate skills, discussing all sorts of ideas about how to foster social change and shift U.S. policy at home and abroad to a more humane one. (The National Lawyers Guild lawyers had played critical roles in forging the New Deal, and also in forming the first integrated bar association when the ABA excluded lawyers of color.) Thereafter she worked in what she described as a “store front law firm,“ which she began with four other friends. It was called “The South Brooklyn Law Collective.” They set it up in such a way that the law firm would absorb all of their loans and they were each paid equally. They each began earning $150 dollars per week and by the time she left, she was earning $175 per week. They closed the office to study labor history and politics together every Friday afternoon.

After this, Meyer led the first lawyers delegation to China after the death of Mao Tse Tung, and was hired upon her return as assistant general counsel to District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.  (For those seeking employment, she emphasizes that the general counsel told her it was her passionate and well-researched cover letter that earned her the offer.) Prior to coming to NYLS she was the bureau chief for labor in the New York State Attorney General’s Office, where she represented the State Labor Department and Workers’ Compensation Boards as well as brought affirmative litigation on behalf of the Attorney General. She earlier served as assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Bureau of that office. She left the Attorney General to obtain an LLM at Yale Law School, having been inspired by a course she took at night in American legal history, taught by Prof. Morton Horowitz, in which they read what she describes as a brilliant book by (later) New York Law School Professor Edward Purcell.

NYLS

Nearly twenty-seven years ago, New York Law School welcomed her as a professor of labor and employment law. Her interests ranged from gender and sexuality to separation of powers. After some time, she began to teach family law as well. Then, at a time when she was searching for additional ways to become involved in the law school, Diane and Arthur Abbey expressed interest in creating a center for children. This led to her becoming the founding director of the Diane Abbey Law Center for Children and Families (now the Abbey Institute). She created courses and forged relationships to provide students with educational and professional opportunities in the area of family law— defined in a very broad sense. She is also part of New York Law School’s new Impact Center for Public Interest Law. Professor Meyer explained that she likes family law because she sees it as a legal field that challenges our notions of what the law is, and constantly raises profound policy questions about gender, race, economic equality, national boundaries, and more.

Professor Meyer fondly remembers her class’s “Family Nights”: where families were invited to come and sit in on her classes and participate. Parents, partners, and children of her students played active roles in the class. She also looks back fondly on the Abbey Center parties she hosted at her apartment, playing Apples to Apples until the late hours, and the times she spent laughing with students while reminiscing about different school events. She could not forget about the fun she has had by taking part in graduation festivities, which are always joyous occasions.

She also reflected on the ways in which the world has changed since she was a young lawyer setting out on her career. She felt that her generation had clearer battles in the areas of civil rights and women’s rights, and that the path for progressive students today is a good deal more complex. She urged us not to be deterred from continuing to try to make change especially in relation to issues regarding the environment and the unfair distribution of wealth and opportunity. (She rejects the term redistribution, she says, because it implies an “original” and appropriate distribution, when all of the rules about property and wealth have been, quite literally, man-made, and are products of power and politics).

Final thoughts, Advice, and the Future

At the end of the interview, we asked her for advice. Professor Meyer provided this fine quote that I imagine would resonate deeply with many law students: “Life is short. Do what you love. You’ll find a way to repay the loans. There’s no point in getting up and not wanting to go to work. Be active. Change. Shift. Make your workplace fit you. Don’t lose sight of the big picture. Don’t narrow your life to a winning motion. You’re not a hired gun. Turn down cases if they would make you operate in ways that your gut tells you are immoral or inappropriate. The greatest thing about law school is that it challenges you to question everything, and gives you the tools to try to change what you don’t like.”

Lastly, thank you Professor Meyer for being so approachable and honest. You have been a great inspiration to us all and your advice has been invaluable. For those who wish to speak with Professor Meyer, she will continue to occupy an office at NYLS (same phone number, same email), and she will be available to talk about any thoughts and concerns regarding law school and your future career goals— or, of course, just to engage with students about anything they would like to discuss.

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