Charles Halpern, now 68, has led a professional life many lawyers only dream about. He founded the nation’s first public interest law firm, the Center for Law and Social Policy, and was the first dean of the City University of New York School of Law, created to train advocates for the poor and disadvantaged.
But it didn’t start out that way. After graduating from Yale Law School and clerking for a federal judge, in 1965 he did the predictable thing, joining Washington, D.C.’s Arnold, Fortas & Porter—then, as now, one of the capital’s most influential and politically connected law firms.
His weeks were filled with anonymous work for corporate clients: advising a New York bank that wanted to open a branch on Long Island or helping Coca-Cola avoid a Federal Trade Commission requirement that it list caffeine content on its bottles. The firm gave him and his growing family a comfortable life, but one that he felt lacked meaning. It’s a condition familiar to big-firm associates of every generation.
This excerpt from his new book, Making Waves and Riding the Currents: Activism and the Practice of Wisdom, recounts how he decided to break free to create a life that fed his soul.