CMLAA Alumnus of the Year Honoree: Terry Gilbert

Terry Gilbert '73  will be recognized as one of the CMLAA's Alumni of the Year at the association's annual luncheon on  May 22.  For more information on the luncheon, click here.

Terry Gilbert ’73 needs no reminders of his time at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.  Gilbert has to look no further than his partner Gordon Friedman, who he met while Friedman was a professor at the law school in the early ’70s.  Even without that connection, Gilbert credits his time at Cleveland-Marshall as a transformative period that became the foundation for his life as a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer.  He recalls the importance of a class boycott that helped shape his future. 

“The new breed of law students wanted relevancy – with courses that reflected the challenges of the times in the midst of growing social movements, persistent inequality and a festering unpopular war,” explained Gilbert.  “We threatened to boycott a class unless the administration met with us to hear our concerns about the curriculum. It worked, and this show of student opinion led to new professors and progressive programs. Such appetite for positive change helped shape my motto: ‘never be complacent and accept authority for authority's sake.  It is possible to stand up and be heard’.”

Gilbert’s career as a civil rights attorney took shape, and was helped by the opportunity to work on a high-profile national case as a young lawyer. 

In 1973, a 71-day standoff on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation between American Indians and law enforcement captivated the nation.  Known as the Wounded Knee Operation,   the event attracted widespread press coverage, and brought to light longstanding issues of injustice related to American Indians.  Hundreds of lawyers from across the country, including Gilbert, heeded the call to represent those indicted in the aftermath. 

“We worked collectively with our clients in difficult conditions, sometimes sleeping on floors,” said Gilbert.  “The sense of community and sprit - and the breaking down of barriers between the lawyer and client working on a common cause to expose an injustice – was a lesson I never forgot.

Gilbert has continued to work as an activist for groups, including American Indians, as part of his practice.  He also worked pro bono for a decade to re-open the Dr. Sam Sheppard case, bringing the case back into the national focus in the early ’90s.  The high-profile nature of many of his cases has landed Gilbert on national and local media as a legal expert, including The Today Show, CNN, 60 Minutes and Dateline.

For Gilbert, the pride comes from the people and causes that he serves, rather than the attention he receives.  As for his honor as one of the Alumni of the Year from the  Cleveland-Marshall Law Alumni Association, Gilbert is more appreciative of what it says about his profession, than the personal accolade.

“This is recognition of the importance of progressive and activist lawyers who often challenge the status quo and put themselves on the line to confront unjust treatment against minorities, the disadvantaged, and unpopular dissent,” said Gilbert.