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The perspective of a young lawyer is a view from the trenches. As junior associates, we must focus on the five feet in front of us. And our legal world often assumes the narrow confines of the case that’s going to trial or the deal that needs to close. But there is more to a life in the law. To broaden our view of what such a life has to offer, this column will present profiles of prominent New York City lawyers in the hope that young associates can gain perspective from their experiences. It is not uncommon for students to enter law school without a good reason or even a clear idea of what they want to accomplish — much less a dream. This is not true of Michael Rebell, whose dream from the very start of his legal career was to shape education reform through public advocacy. And this dream led him to take unusual professional risks in building an interesting and successful career. Rebell is the executive director and counsel to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit corporation seeking to reform New York state’s school finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a “sound basic education” for all public school students in New York City. Just last week, Rebell argued before the Court of Appeals that the education article of the New York state constitution requires the state to provide students with an adequate high school education, and that hundreds of thousands of New York City school children are being denied an opportunity for a sound basic education. The case, Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State, 74, arises from a suit brought by a coalition of school boards and education advocates to challenge the state’s educational funding scheme. It resulted in a favorable ruling from Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse that the state said would have directed it to divert more than $2 billion to New York City schools. But that ruling was overturned by the Appellate Division, 1st Department last summer. If Rebell succeeds before the Court of Appeals, he and his group will be responsible for defining and raising the constitutional standard for public education in the entire state of New York. FIELD OF HIS CHOICE In many ways, Rebell has led a charmed life in the law. From the very start, his career has taken interesting turns. Less than three years out of law school, he already had his own clients and was running his own firm in the field of his choice. It all started with his passion for education law, which he first developed in law school. “Education is a field where emotions can run very high,” said Rebell. “It’s all about shaping the minds of future generations. Our entire society has a tremendous stake in what happens in the classroom.” After graduating, Rebell went to what is now Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson to work for a partner who was helping decentralize the New York City’s Board of Education into 32 local school boards. But after a year and a half at Fried Frank, Rebell took a leave of absence to work for Community School System Project, a nonprofit organization advising the newly created local school boards on their powers and other legal issues. “It was an exciting place to be,” he said. “I was dealing with grassroots people making education policy. I did that for one and a half years, then the committee ran out of money. This created a fabulous opportunity because of the contacts I had with the decentralized community school boards who all needed legal advice. “So three years out of law school, I hung out my own shingle and told the community school boards that they could still get the same legal advice, but now it would cost them. There would be no more free legal service, but if you come down the street, you could get the same service for a fee.” At a time when most attorneys are still junior associates entrusted with no more than document reviews, Rebell had already started his own small firm. While he was running his firm, Rebell began the education reform lawsuit that became Campaign for Fiscal Equity. “It started out as just one case in the office among many. At first, I didn’t even know if it would get past a motion to dismiss. “These kind of institutional lawsuits are often concocted in the academy or by public interest groups who want to get rid of certain laws or test out legal theories. But this story is just the opposite of that. “This lawsuit came from real life. Bob Jackson was President of the Community School Board in Local District 6. There were heavy budget cuts in the 1990s. His schools were so overcrowded, they were busing kids out of his district to other schools. “He said to me that ‘Our backs are against the wall here. New York City is not getting its fair share of aid from the state government,’” Rebell said. “What I realized from my research was that there was a national trend toward ‘adequacy’ and away from the ‘equity’ approach,” he said. This means that instead of arguing that “equity” mandates spending the same amount per student, he said, a more successful argument was that the state is required to meet certain bare minimum standards of “adequacy.” In a 1995 decision earlier in the long-running Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, the Court of Appeals gave the group the green light to pursue a constitutional challenge to New York’s system for financing education on the grounds that it denies thousands of students, both in New York City and across the state, the opportunity to a “sound basic education.” In its decision, the Court of Appeals defined a “sound basic education” to mean a sufficient education to allow students to “acquire basic literacy skills necessary to enable the students to vote and serve as jurors.” Rebell continued: “The stage we are at right now is arguing the meaning of ‘sound basic education,’ the constitutional standard. The Court of Appeals gave us a template meaning, that is, that ‘sound basic education’ means making the citizens into able jurors and voters.” INSTITUTIONAL CHANGE “But if you want to make institutional change,” said Rebell, “you have to take democracy seriously. This lawsuit gave me the opportunity to try out this theory of ‘public engagement’ in public advocacy. I went out to the people of New York and asked hundreds of people in different communities what they thought about the Court of Appeals’ ‘jurors and voters’ standard. What they said was that what they really wanted from their children’s education was the chance for competitive employment. “We had a 180-degree change because of people’s input about this standard. We never intended to put on a case about competitive employment, but now that has become key to our case, because that’s what the people of New York state want public education to accomplish.” No matter what the Court of Appeals decides in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, Rebell is on his way to achieving his vision for his life in the law. SECRET TO SUCCESS Rebell’s secret turns on his having a dream in the first place for his life in the law and then the courage and faith to follow it. “The law opens many doors,” he said. “It is an avenue to power in our society. And that power can be used for good too. It’s not just about manipulating the system for your benefit. The law has been a route to power to bring about positive change. That’s the vision inspiring my professional life and I don’t want to ever lose sight of it.” Rebell provides an example of how you must not sell yourself too cheaply doing something you do not like or believe in. Develop a vision or a dream for a life in the law. Find something in the law that satisfies you and follow it wherever it leads. Once you have a dream, you can make your own luck. Robert Monahan is an associate at Aaronson Rappaport Feinstein & Deutsch.

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