MICHAEL B. TRISTER 1941-2018
Over a half-century career, the Firm’s late longtime partner and leader Mike Trister worked tirelessly to defend civil rights, build a robust and effective progressive movement, and mentor younger lawyers. Mike was widely respected throughout the nonprofit world as an attorney, advocate and teacher. He devoted his law practice to counseling hundreds of organizations that have sought, as he did, to make the world more just and humane. We thank him for bringing us together to continue this work.
Mike was born in Montreal to Canadian parents living in Princeton, New Jersey, where his father was in a post-doctoral program. When the family decided to remain in the U.S., Mike became a citizen here and spent most of his childhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He returned to Princeton for college and went on to graduate from Yale Law School.
Mike then embarked on a singular mission that propelled his career as a people’s lawyer. A new progressive dean at the University of Mississippi Law School recruited Mike to teach and develop a legal services program designed to serve the poor and provide clinical training for law students. The aggressive legal work Mike and a colleague conducted, including filing a school desegregation suit, prompted resistance from the state’s political hierarchy. Bowing to pressure, in 1968 the University terminated its relationship with the program and refused to allow Mike and his colleague to teach at the law school if they continued with the program.
The University’s justification was that faculty members could not have outside employment, but in fact others did so without interference. Mike and his colleague sued Ole Miss, and won; as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit concluded: “It appears clear that the only reason for making a decision adverse to appellants was that they wished to continue to represent clients who tended to be unpopular. This is a distinction that cannot be constitutionally upheld.” Trister v. University of Mississippi, 420 F. 2d 499 (1969).
By this time Mike was working full-time as the first Executive Director of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services. He transformed poverty law practice in Mississippi, focusing particularly on advancing the civil and economic rights of African Americans in the state. Mike not only oversaw school desegregation cases, but also successfully defended NMRLS lawyers when local sheriffs tried to jail them. They viewed Mike as their “guardian angel.”
Mike moved to Washington, DC in 1970 to join an organization started by a Mississippi colleague, civil rights lawyer Marian Wright Edelman. In 1973 this organization became the Children’s Defense Fund, which Mike later served as Vice President and General Counsel until starting his own law firm in 1976, and he continued to represent CDF for the rest of his career.
In 1988, Mike co-founded our firm, and for nearly 30 years he counseled progressive advocacy, labor, charitable and political organizations as well as grant-making foundations on tax, campaign finance, lobbying and general nonprofit corporate matters – and, many, many of these clients “tended to be unpopular” in some quarters. Working with broad-reaching clients like the Alliance for Justice and the AFL-CIO, Mike created vital guidances about lobbying and election law that circulated widely among both lawyers and activists. Mike taught strategies to maximize advocacy, and he defended clients in lawsuits and audits.
Central to Mike’s vision of the practice of law was the importance of serving and supporting social, economic and political movements. He routinely did so steadily and meticulously, out of the limelight, enabling his clients to pursue their activism and goals with legal security. Countless grassroots organizers and progressive leaders across the country have Mike to thank for their knowledge of the laws they navigate in order to press for social and political change.
Throughout his life, Mike also sought to improve the legal profession – through his example, his teaching at the University of Mississippi, American University Washington College of Law, and the University of Maryland School of Law, and his service as Chair of the DC Bar Legal Ethics Committee and the DC Bar Rules of Professional Conduct Review Committee.
And, with all of that, Mike was but one-half of a committed couple with his wife Nancy (“Duffy”) Duff Campbell, the co-founder and now Co-President Emerita of the National Women’s Law Center, which fights for gender justice in the courts, in public policy and in society.
In June 2018 the Alliance for Justice honored Mike with its Lifetime Achievement Award for his “courageous dedication to social justice advocacy.” Mike’s remarks in accepting this award reflect his modesty, relating the examples of lawyers and activists who had taught and inspired him. His remarks and the testimonies of friends and colleagues at this event may be viewed here.