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In his long career, Charles Halpern has wrestled with familiar questions: What is the way to measure success? How does a lawyer balance the competing demands of work and family? And perhaps most importantly, what constitutes wisdom? Halpern attempts to answer these questions in an engaging autobiographical book, Making Waves and Riding the Currents: Activism and the Practice of Wisdom. Wisdom, he says, entails “aligning work with values” and “keeping life in balance.” For Halpern, the cultivation of wisdom came gradually, on camping trips where he and his wife learned to canoe, in seminars that taught him humanistic psychology, and through the study of Buddhism and the practice of meditation. I found Halpern’s stories about his career more compelling than the lessons he tries to impart. In the more than 40 years since Halpern graduated law school, he has been involved in some of the most interesting developments in the practice and teaching of public interest law. It’s an inspiring journey, with moments of humor and irony. As a young associate at Arnold, Fortas & Porter, Halpern is summoned to the chambers of David Bazelon, the imperious chief judge of the D.C. Circuit, and assigned the task of representing an individual who was involuntarily — and improperly — committed to a mental hospital after committing a misdemeanor. Halpern liberates his client, Charles Rouse, from the mental hospital. The case puts Halpern on the cusp of the emerging legal movement to protect the rights of the mentally disabled. It’s enormously rewarding for him but not — he is soon reminded — for Arnold, Fortas & Porter. Back at the law firm, Paul Porter congratulates Halpern for bringing “law and order to the dank back wards of Bedlam.” Then he adds, “I hope this means you’ll be able to bill some hours next month.” For Halpern, private practice means weeks in Wisconsin representing an equipment manufacturer trying to acquire a lawn mower manufacturer, long hours advising a New York City bank on opening a branch on Long Island, and similar fare. Increasingly disenchanted with private practice, Halpern decides, with several similarly inclined lawyers, to start the Center for Law and Social Policy, the first of a number of public interest litigation law firms to emerge from the political activism of the 1960s. Halpern details the group’s early success in litigating a major environmental lawsuit involving the Alaska pipeline. (Ralph Nader, wearing “a shapeless tan raincoat,” stops by one Saturday night after an early victory in the case to offer his congratulations and is a bit dismayed by the ongoing celebration.) In 1982, Halpern is named the first dean of CUNY Law School. CUNY was founded with the mission of preparing students for the practice of public interest law, and Halpern takes the job with high hopes tempered by his concerns about operating a law school, hiring a faculty, and recruiting students. Reality turns out to be challenging. The law school is in Queens, and success depends upon a cordial relationship with then-borough president Donald Manes, a quintessential old-school machine politician. For Manes, according to Halpern, a public interest law school in Queens was a “cynical gimmick” to avoid criticism from existing Manhattan law schools opposed to a new competitor. The president of Queens College, Saul Cohen, breaks most of the promises he made with Halpern. Chancellor Joe Murphy announces to the audience at a business breakfast that if anyone has “any students you want to see admitted to the Law School — just contact the Dean directly,” indicating that there was a place at CUNY for anyone with influence. Halpern survives as dean long enough to see the school’s first class — an extraordinarily diverse group of students — graduate and for the school to earn preliminary accreditation from the American Bar Association. And he wins enough battles to succeed in establishing CUNY as a genuine public interest law school. Several years after resigning as dean, Halpern leaves the faculty to become the first president of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, a philanthropic organization. With respect to the cultivation of wisdom, in addition to aligning work with values and living a balanced life, Halpern also calls for making “time for reflection and introspection” and recognizing “the interconnection of all people” as well as “the constancy of change.” It is hard to dispute the value of this advice. However, it also is difficult for an individual to make specific decisions based upon such general principles. The more important lessons Halpern has to offer come from his stories from the front lines of public interest law and education.
Rodger Citron is an assistant professor of law at Touro Law Center in Central Islip, New York.

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