Bloomberg Law
July 27, 2023, 9:00 AM

They’ve Got Next: The 40 Under 40-Amir Ali of MacArthur Justice Center

Lisa Helem
Lisa Helem
Executive Editor
MP McQueen

Please describe two of your most substantial, recent wins in practice.

Last US Supreme Court term, I argued for my client, Larry Thompson, in a case involving police misconduct. The issue was whether an officer can be held accountable in court for bringing false charges against someone that are later dismissed.

At the time I took the case, courts across the country had said no: a person whose life is upended in this way has no recourse in federal court. We convinced the Supreme Court to overturn that rule, which some court watchers described as “a monumental win” for civil rights and communities of color.

Another recent win involved arguing in front of a panel that was twice the size of the Supreme Court—the en banc Fifth Circuit, composed of 18 judges. In that case, I persuaded an 11-judge majority to deny immunity to officers who had shot my client, Ryan Cole, from behind without any threat.

What is the most important lesson you learned as a first-year attorney and how does it inform your practice today?

Never underestimate the power of determination, hard work, and creative advocacy. I learned this in the context of a death penalty case I worked on in my first year of practice.

A handful of brilliant attorneys had reviewed the case and concluded that there was no viable argument to be made, but we took the case on anyway. After a great deal of brainstorming and research, not only did we find a viable argument, but we convinced the US Supreme Court to hear the case. And after a string of victories, we got our client’s death sentence overturned, saving his life.

Since then, in every Supreme Court case I’ve argued, I’ve had at least one smart person who I admire tell me that the odds are against my client or that we’re going to lose. But because of that early lesson, I knew not to let it discourage me and, instead, put my head down in the work.

Today, when people tell me that some injustice is inevitable or not worth my time, I consider it a beginning, not an end. That’s when it’s time to get the creative juices flowing and see if we can achieve something audacious.

How do you define success in your practice?

One of the consequences of starting my career at Jenner & Block is that I’ve seen the quality of representation you can get when you are a company that can afford to pay for the finest lawyers that money can buy. Today, I represent people who are neglected — even forgotten — by society.

Success is making sure that my clients receive that same quality representation that I saw at the firm. It’s making sure that regardless of their social or economic power — regardless of their race or other immutable characteristics — they have an advocate who will fight to make sure their voice is heard and that they are treated with the same respect and dignity as any other litigant.

And I’ve been able to observe that success in a very tangible way. I’ve seen that when my client’s stories are conveyed with care and passion, they have the potential to persuade even unlikely judges and audiences. The equalization of power and voice is itself transformative and has the potential to change hearts and minds.

What are you most proud of as a lawyer?

My greatest pride has been witnessing the tangible, concrete impacts that my work has had on the lives of my clients and on the law generally. I lead an organization of limited resources so each of the cases we take on is, by definition, important and they are almost always incredibly high stakes for my client.

In that type of case, there’s no experience like telling your client that you’ve succeeded. I’ve had the distinct pride of seeing a client’s reaction when I got to tell him that his death sentence was overturned. And I’ve had the distinct pride of telling a client that his wrongful conviction had been overturned — of seeing his smile when we walked him out of the prison doors after 20 years behind bars.

At the same time, I’ve taken great pride in the broader impact that those victories have for others in the legal system. My very first argument before the Supreme Court, for instance, led to hundreds of people receiving relief from illegal sentences that they were serving. I’m proud to see those concrete effects and to keep building on them.

Who is your greatest mentor in law and what have they taught you?

Right after law school, I had the honor of clerking for Judge Raymond C. Fisher in the Ninth Circuit, who became an early and important mentor to me. Judge Fisher was known for being a measured judge who deeply appreciated the serious impact that the law has on real lives.

Judge Fisher taught me that the power to persuade was not about who was the loudest person in the room but who was the most prepared person in the room. Getting someone to come around to your position — especially someone who is inclined to disagree with you — is about listening to them, making sure they know you are listening to them, and then using your own preparedness to address the concerns you hear. Although Judge Fisher has since passed, I carry that lesson with me every day, inside the courtroom and out.

Tell us your two favorite songs on your summer music playlist.

My four-year-old controls the radio dial these days but fortunately, she has good taste. Currently, we’re listening to “Wildfire” by Cautious Clay and “Hold Me” by The Tesky Brothers.

Amir Ali of the MacArthur Justice Center and his four-year-old daughter.
Amir Ali and Jonathan Hurtarte /Bloomberg Law

Amir Ali, in addition to his appellate work in civil rights, co-directs Harvard Law School’s criminal justice appellate clinic and has taught courses on constitutional and appellate litigation. He serves on the board of The Appellate Project, a nonprofit encouraging students of color to pursue careers in appellate practice. He is a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation and a member of the Edward Coke Appellate Inn of Court.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Helem at; MP McQueen at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: MP McQueen at; Lisa Helem at

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