Showing up to Speak Out
Photo courtesy of Johnathon Baruch de la Pardo and the Record Journal
As chairman for Lawyers without Borders and a representative of the American Bar Association to the United Nations, Houston Putnam Lowry '76 knows that systematic change requires attention to detail, but more importantly the courage to stand up for your beliefs.
Houston Putnam Lowry '76 is an anomaly: he is a man who loves his job. Lowry is a lawyer serving as one of five American Bar Association (ABA) representatives to the United Nations in New York; he privately practices law for the firm of Brown & Welsh in Connecticut; and he is chairman of the Board of Lawyers Without Borders.
“I have the world's best job—representing these organizations—because I can get out there and voice concerns that no one else feels comfortable mentioning,” Lowry said. “I can take a position just because it's a principled position. I can say ‘hey, torture is a bad thing,’ ‘human rights are good’ and ‘we shouldn't discriminate against women’ and I don't have to compromise. This is an intrinsic human right.”
Lowry is serving his sixth year as an ABA representative to the UN, but considers his work with Lawyers Without Borders to be even more important. The organization provides training to lawyers and judges internationally, serves as a resource for countries without technological advances like those in the United States, and conducts research on ongoing international issues such as orphans of AIDS in western Africa. It puts the legal systems of other countries on the world stage.
“Since our reports are not generally public, but are shared with the governments of the courts we enter, we have the opportunity to observe closed trials,” Lowry said. “For the most part we find that the quality of judging and legal services is higher if someone is sitting in the back of the room watching, to remind people that this is not a simple conversation occurring in the dark of the night.”
Those reminding entities in the courtrooms make comments and point out problems that are observed in a way that may not be as high profile as an organization like Amnesty International, but allows for greater access and responsiveness.
His freedom of political agendas allows Lowry to stand up and point out the gaps and flaws in legislation as a lawyer, and as a citizen, sometimes showing up to proceedings without a client. Lowry stays informed by reading, at minimum, the title and purpose of every bill introduced in the Connecticut state legislature.
The world is run by those who show up, and when he finds an interest, Lowry is there, commenting on drafts to make sure legislation does not have unintended consequences and is technical enough to cover all the bases, practicing reductionism and pragmatism for bottom-up strategies.
“Sometimes I represent the Bar Association, and I go in and argue with people when we disagree with the logic of their position . . . I do this because I have an interest in the proposal that was made,” Lowry said.
As a result of his tendency to “show up,” Lowry has contributed to the joining of the party to the convention that eliminates racial discrimination, torture, and the party to the United Nations covenant on civil and human rights.
“When I started off, these things seemed dreadfully obvious,” said Lowry. “Now, people are going ‘oh, that wasn't dreadfully obvious!’ and we've fixed a few things.”
The analytical thinking Lowry believes is useful in law may be likened to computer programming. “Generally in the international community, the success of the body in accomplishing its work is directly proportional to how technical the work is,” he stated. While at Pitzer, Lowry served as a computer consultant, which allowed him to approach problems in ways he came to realize were not the norm. He added that critical evaluations are crucial in international legal matters, and can be very political. A semi-serious joke in his field is that one personís terrorist is another person's freedom fighter.
“It's a system of justice so it doesn't work impeccably every time,” said Lowry. “That's the difference between justice and a system of justice. You have to make sure you investigate the specific circumstances and make sure you don't lump different things together when there are ways to distinguish.”
Lowry fondly remembers Pitzer College for the space students are given to voice their opinions and present alternative proposals to the administration. He served on the Board of Trustees budgetary committee, and as he remembers, they “put up” with him. Pitzer had not yet developed a formal Student Senate. “There was no government other than the large collective we and the large town meetings,” said Lowry. “It was anachronistic, working things out as a whole community.”
Such experiences are similar to those facing Lowry in his current position, navigating interests and political philosophies in international organizations and meetings. Committee work lends itself to learning how to interact with others. “I guess you eat with a knife and fork, try not to tell someone they are stupid in another language, listen to them and try to figure out why they are reacting a certain way,” Lowry said. “You are trying to understand what principle they are attempting to further and see if there is a way to reach a combination that will further both of your principles. It's not simply a win or lose process.”
Graduating from Pitzer with a BA in psychology and Political Studies, Lowry remembers his adviser, Professor John Rodman, as a positive influence on his college experience. Lowry laughed as he recalled that Rodman had reportedly told someone that he could not see how his advisee would ever succeed in politics when Lowry was among the least politically adept individuals Rodman knew. “You know, it's probably true,” admitted Lowry. “And I have not quite figured out why I am so successful at lobbying, other than I do lobby for what I view as good. I don't do it for pay. I'm not a gun for hire. I lobby because I have an interest.”
Leonard Levy was one of Lowry's professors for the history of constitutional law, and Lowry appreciated the high standards he held for his students. “At one point, Levy wrote ‘your writing style is suited for a cracker-barrel column in a rural daily’ and it may in fact, only be suited for that,” Lowry admitted. “I am not going to write the great American novel, but it seems to have done okay for me.”
In representing the ABA, Lowry usually attends UN Commission on International Trade Law proceedings and keeps an eye out for issues in which his legal expertise may serve to develop better solutions, particularly when political understanding may fall short.
“We receive a text and talk about it. You try to make a comment that doesn't violate the policy of the organization you are representing at the time, or be so vituperative that you offend the people you are talking to,” Lowry explained. “There can be some navigating, and because I'm not very politically adept, it can be very interesting.”
Considering long-term goals for his work, Lowry does not presume to know. “I'm not sure there is an end game,” Lowry said. “To improve things. It's a process, it's not a goal that you ever reach.”