Drexel University’s Kline School of Law welcomes its newest faculty member, Elena Cohen, an attorney, activist and scholar based in Brooklyn, New York. Beginning in the winter term, Cohen will teach in the law school’s new Undergraduate Minor in Law program, which is directed by Rose Corrigan, associate dean for undergraduate education and associate professor of law.
Cohen received her JD from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and her PhD in Political Science from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is the former president of the National Lawyers Guild and an adjunct associate professor teaching Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Gender and the Law classes in the City University of New York system.
During a recent interview Cohen spoke about the protests of 2020, her love of dance and why undergraduate students should study the law.
Was there a moment or experience that motivated you to do the work that you do?
I went to law school because I wanted my full-time work to be helping people, and it feels great that my teaching, scholarship and practice is in that service. I have always been a political person, and seeing how governments repress protests here in the U.S. and around the world certainly motivates me. As a queer woman, who has been out well before gay marriage was legal and when I could legally be fired from my job or evicted from my apartment for being gay (the last of which I still could be in many places!), there have been many instances where I saw how the law was and was not protecting me and my family.
In broad strokes, describe your legal scholarship and practice?
My law practice focuses on serving the needs of three populations: activists, the LGBTQ community and anyone whose constitutional rights are violated by government officials. This often takes the form of civil rights litigation and criminal defense, but can include family law, estates, contracts and many other areas! My legal scholarship also revolves around constitutional law and thinking through how to use the law to help those most excluded and least protected.
You’re currently suing the NYPD on behalf of several Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters in response to the police conduct during the BLM protests in 2020. How have you seen protests and responses to protests in the last year and a half change?
The NYPD’s brutal and unconstitutional response to last summer’s protests was nothing new. Police across this country regularly respond to peaceful protests with shows of force and violations of First Amendment rights. So, the BLM policing last summer was not different. What has been different is the public response.
For example, in New York, the Attorney General’s Office, the NYC Department of Investigation and the NYC Law Department’s Corporation Counsel all published scathing reports of last summer’s policing. The Mayor’s Office demanded accountability and action. The Attorney General’s Office also filed a lawsuit on behalf of the people of New York demanding that a monitor for the NYPD be appointed. The demand for change is coming from all directions.
There is a chance for real changes to policing now, and I think that police officers and police unions are concerned about these real changes to policing. The NYPD and a lot of police departments have become a place where officers can act without repercussion. They are not going to get disciplined; they are not going to get in trouble; they’re not going to get charged with a crime. If there’s a lawsuit, even if people win, the city will indemnify the officer and pay for it. Because of that, in recent times, police departments have really attracted people who want to exert power without facing consequences. That’s the culture that policing has become. It’s very hard to dispute that if you have any organization that has a culture of impunity, you’re going to attract people who like that impunity.
This is the first time in my legal career that I’m seeing a chance that police are really going to be held accountable and that things are actually going to change and that’s really amazing to see. I think this is the greatest civil rights moment of our lives—definitely of my life. I think things are going to change, and I don’t think police are going to be able to keep acting like this.
What do you want undergraduate students to know about protesting today?
I want undergraduate students to know that this is a really powerful time to get involved in protesting. We’re at a moment—like with the civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s—where people are rising up to say that the status quo is not ok. It’s a really powerful time to be part of that movement. This is a moment in history where you’re going to look back and think “What side was I on? Was I out there in the streets?”
We’re going to see real change from this. The more people who get involved, the more changes we’re going to see. This is a really special opportunity to shape our future, that only comes once in a lifetime, if at all.
What drew you to Kline Law and to undergraduate education? And why do you think undergraduates should study law?
Many things drew me to Kline Law and teaching law to undergraduates. One is that the law impacts and affects our lives in so many ways. When you think of things from sexual harassment law to fair wages to interactions with police to rights of protesterss, etc., there are just so many points where people’s everyday lives interact with the law.
It can feel really scary and disempowering, and like the law is a big complicated impenetrable thing. It’s really important that people understand the law, understand courts and understand how our justice system works. It will help them in their lives and in their friends’ and family’s lives. Understanding the system that touches people’s lives in so many ways is beneficial for your life and also for your career.
There are just so many different careers you can have where understanding the law is incredibly important. But we have a system where you only get that education if you go to law school. Lots of people would benefit in their personal and professional lives if they had an understanding of the law, outside of people who want to be litigating cases in court. The undergraduate program is really great because it teaches this information that will help people succeed in a lot of ways. It opens up access to really important education for a lot of people.
I have been teaching law classes like this to undergraduates for about seven years, and it’s incredibly fulfilling. It feels really great to me to help people understand that this intimidating, fancy thing is really accessible. They don’t need to be confused or afraid. You can just learn this, too.
What’s your approach in working with and supporting students?
What I like to do when I work with students is to make sure that everybody has the same basic information and knowledge. I like to lecture a bit so that everyone knows what the law is and how it works. Then after that, I have a discussion and debate and have people really talk it through.
In every legal case, the case doesn’t make it to court unless people are arguing over something. They are going to have good or bad reasons on both sides. And in cases that make it to the Supreme Court, there are going to be very good reasons on both sides. It’s really interesting for students to be able to think about both sides of an issue and what side they think is right, what side they stand on.
I also try to relate readings to people’s lives. For example, if we’re talking about Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and how it has affected people, I don’t think most undergraduate students are going to have an answer right away. But then we talk about that first time it became illegal to post a job ad just for men. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, people could and did post ads that said “Computer Programmer - Men only,” “Doctor - Men only” or “White people only.” And that’s not what job ads look like today, because of Title VII. Sexual harassment at work wasn’t illegal under Title VII until 1980. Your boss could try to have sex with you, and there was no recourse under the law. So, when you talk to people about positions that they’ve been in and jobs that they’ve had and stuff that has happened, students will start to understand why this matters a lot.
What classes will you be teaching?
I’m teaching “Law 110: American Legal System” this coming winter term. This class is going to be about where laws come from. All three branches of the government make laws, and it’s really complicated how all of those branches end up making law. The course will also cover state laws and federal laws and how cases are litigated. The class is basically going to be an introduction to understand if a client, a friend, or your mother came to you and said this thing happened to me, you can say this is the type of court you can go to, this is the type of help you can get, this is what a person can do, and this is how it all works.
I’m also teaching “Law and Religion in America Today,” which is really interesting, because we have this secular society but we also have a lot of different religious cooperation, religious people and religious protection. Religion touches a lot of areas. For example, there are questions of religious freedom in cases in family court, related to marriage and divocrce, childcare, abortion and birth control, and also criminal charges. The course is really interesting because looking at religion in America today you actually end up looking at a lot of different subject matter.
What’s one thing you wish you had learned earlier in your career or life?
This is a hard question and a big one! Something that I wish that I learned earlier is that when you’re a newer student and learning things, you can feel that you have a lot to learn and like you’re not the expert on anything. But people are really smart.
If you’re an undergraduate student of whatever age, you’ve had a lot of life experiences. You do know how law affects you and those around you. And I wish that I had been told this, and I wish that I had just come to college being more confident.
For undergraduates in my classes, when we’re talking about the law, students actually know a lot, even if I’m explaining it now as something new. For example, students know there are rights to free speech in this country. People intuitively, just from living their lives, have learned a lot about the law and know a lot. People’s lived experience and everything that’s already happened has already made them experts in some of these things related to the law.
What would you want the Kline Law community to know about your interests outside of law?
I went to a performance high school for dance! Even though that’s not my career now, I still love dancing. Being a dancer taught me that you need to be comfortable being in public and in front of people and having people watch you. Dancing requires a similar set of skills to being a lawyer and a professor. Doing dance a lot when I was younger helped me get over stage fright and helped me be a better lawyer and a better professor.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.