We felt fully prepared for our meeting with indigenous community leaders in the Peruvian Amazon. We had, after all, interned at EarthRights International’s (ERI) Peru office all summer. Yet when we got there, it was nothing like we expected it would be.

Last month, my fellow intern and I traveled with two ERI attorneys to meet a group of indigenous community leaders in the Peruvian Amazon. The leaders are fighting against a transnational oil corporation that threatens their health and livelihoods. The corporation plans to drill at the headwaters of a major river basin in the heart of the Amazon. This meeting was the culmination of our work as legal interns. We had spent the summer, collectively a few hundred hours, investigating the corporation’s actions and researching its violations under U.S. and Peruvian law. Because we are still law students, we were picking up new skills along the way.

We opened the meeting with a presentation of our findings. We felt confident in our knowledge of the facts and legal theories, but at the close of the presentation, our confidence was shaken by the community leaders’ response. We thought we had presented the best case for the best outcomes for the community.

But the community leaders wanted to talk about something else.

The conversation quickly turned from our findings to issues that we would not be able to litigate. At first we were confused and a little frustrated. After all, we had put a lot of time and energy into building this case. Yet, what did we expect the community leaders to say? “You lawyers are brilliant! Let’s go with whatever you say.”

No. That response would have been much worse. We chose to intern with ERI to learn about social justice lawyering, and this meeting was our biggest lesson yet. We came to the meeting with a clear idea of what litigation strategy would best serve the leaders’ goal of preventing hazardous oil operations on their lands. While our strategy was not ill-conceived, we formed the strategy through the perspective of legal professionals and concentrated on injuries that the community leaders did not perceive as principle concerns.

One of the big lessons learned, that will stick with us long after we finish law school is that  social justice lawyers should collaborate with their clients as partners in the litigation process, rather than treat them as inactive recipients of legal services. Because the client’s ultimate goal is rarely synonymous with the legal claims available, social justice lawyers must take direction from their client as to how their services can be used to further the client’s fight for social, political, and economic power beyond the courthouse. In turn, the client learns how to frame successful demands through consideration of the lawyer’s insights and participating in the litigation process.

Under the social justice framework, our meeting with the community leaders was a constructive start to the litigation process. Both lawyers and clients left the meeting with a greater understanding of each other’s’ perspectives, and ERI is in a better position to provide support to the communities in their fight to protect their rights. As for us interns, we learned that social justice lawyering takes plenty of patience and a great deal of practice.