Lynette Labinger has made a career out of fighting for social change
Published in 2010 New England Super Lawyers magazine
on October 18, 2010
Updated on October 20, 2010
Sometimes the future comes down to one event; a moment so significant to a person’s life that everything else is eventually defined against its backdrop. For Lynette Labinger, that moment came during a month-long trip to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1970. It was then, at the age of 20, that Labinger discovered what she wanted to do with her life.
“That trip was the game changer for me,” says Labinger, 61, from her law office in Providence. “That’s where things became clear.”
Labinger had just completed her junior year at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where she was studying Russian history. In addition to her academic interests, Labinger, whose parents were both born to Russian immigrants, also wanted to visit some extended family members and important ancestral landmarks in the country. What she found was an experience that would shape the rest of her life.
During the trip, Labinger had the opportunity to interact with many locals, and quickly realized how afraid and suspicious ordinary citizens were of their government. In one instance, Labinger recalls visiting her great-aunt in Moscow. Even though the two women were discussing “noncontroversial topics,” Labinger’s aunt insisted on going outdoors to talk, afraid that listening devices might have been planted in the hotel room.
“Many people that I met during that trip routinely assumed every stranger was a member of the state police, and they took great care as to what they might say or what might be overheard,” says Labinger. “It was an eye-opening experience on many levels, and that’s when I really came to recognize the importance of the First Amendment here in the United States.”
Upon returning home, Labinger immediately set out to pursue a career in law devoted to the protection of free speech. Now, 40 years later, she is celebrated as one of the region’s most successful and dedicated social advocacy lawyers, playing a significant role in cases and court decisions that have affected everything from equality in women’s athletics to the rights of prison preachers, avant-garde artists and same-sex couples.
“That was the point,” she says, “that I got very interested in what the law could do in terms of social advocacy. And that’s where I still am today.”
When Labinger enrolled at Mount Holyoke in 1967, the civil rights movement was reaching its peak, and the escalating war in Vietnam had incited radical change and renewal in the ways young people got involved in the government’s function and direction. It was, recalls Labinger, an exciting time to “get involved in the action.
“To us, public service was all about challenging the government, trying to keep the government off our backs, and making sure they were doing what they were supposed to be doing,” she says. “Everyone is a product of their times, and the civil rights movement was a big deal back then, for me and many others.”
After graduating from Mount Holyoke, Labinger enrolled at the New York University School of Law, where she became fascinated with using civil rights law to enact social reform. In addition to her studies, Labinger spent countless nights engaging in debates with her peers.
“We used to have these real heady meetings where we would talk about our future roles in the direction of the country and what public service meant,” says Labinger. “We had some pretty heated debates about it, but it was a great program and great experience.”
By 1974, Labinger had secured a two-year clerkship with the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island with Chief Judge Raymond J. Pettine. If there was any doubt that she was on the right path, Pettine set her straight.
“He was one of several judges who were well known for examining carefully the constitutional underpinnings of civil rights, and it was a wonderful experience to work for him,” she says. “Not only was he a great judge but he was a wonderful human being.”
Labinger went on to work for a Rhode Island law firm headed by Milton Stanzler, one of the founders of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). For six-and-a-half years, Labinger cut her teeth on dozens of civil rights and social advocacy cases, learning that there was a great divide between the intellectually heady conversations she had in law school and the trenches of day-to-day trial work.
“Studying an appellate decision in school and putting a case together for trial are two very different things,” she says. “What seemed like this direct line in law school turned out to be a really circuitous path.”
By 1983 that path led Labinger to team up with a colleague named John Roney to create the firm of Roney & Labinger, where the two still work side by side. Labinger says the partnership was a fit from the start, as she and Roney shared the same approach to social advocacy and public service.
“Lynette is not only an outstanding lawyer, she is, and has been, an outstanding partner,” says Roney. “We have had an idyllic partnership for over 27 years, and to this day we still both look forward to coming to work and associating with each other. I’m honored to be in the same firm with her.”
Even though the world of social advocacy can involve slow and tedious cases, Labinger has had her fair share of renown. Consider, for example, Cohen v. Brown, which stands as perhaps her most widely celebrated case.
In 1991, Labinger began representing several young women who were suing Brown University after the Ivy League refused to reconsider the demotion of women’s gymnastics and volleyball from fully funded sports to donor-funded ones. The suit charged Brown with sex discrimination in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
The courtroom battle lasted six long years, nearly moving all the way to the Supreme Court. But at the outset, Labinger says she was surprised by how fervently the tide of public opinion seemed turned against her clients and their cause. It was, she says, perhaps the most difficult challenge of taking on the case.
“It was distressing. Not just for me, but for the students as well,” recalls Labinger. “They didn’t get the support from Brown that I would have expected, or from the surrounding progressive community.”
Public opinion, however, slowly began to turn in favor of the students during the first year of the case. The shift, says Labinger, came as quite a relief. “Brown kept casting this as a ‘quota issue,’ but our goal was not to reallocate the pie, but instead to simply make a larger pie,” she says.
Labinger won the case, and Brown had to restore funding to the women’s teams. It is still considered by many to be the most significant legal action in the history of women’s sports.
“I went into that not knowing it would have the kind of impact it did or how much it would consume my life,” she says. “I had already been in practice for more than 15 years, but that case was a real surprise. It was far more important than I realized when I took it on.”
Now, nearly a half-century after the ’60s, many of the social issues that arose during Labinger’s formative years have been resolved. But Labinger says there is still plenty of work to be done.
In addition to occasionally consulting for the ACLU, Labinger continues to represent a number of clients in civil rights cases. And whether she’s fighting for the rights of a gay couple to share retirement benefits or advocating for a woman’s right to choose, Labinger—who says she is rather conservative in her personal life—is always prepared for the next big social debate.
“When it comes to the work I do, I want to assist my clients in advocating their positions. I want to be the litigator, not the litigant,” she says. “On the whole, I would say that in some respects there are things in society that seem to have advanced, and others that have moved backwards. But these issues don’t unfold along a linear path, so the next great social issue on the horizon may be one I haven’t thought about at all.”