The Future of Public Interest Law

By Scott L. Cummings | 33 U. ARK. LITTLE ROCK L. REV. 355 (2010).

At the end of the public interest law movement’s first generation, there has been a resurgence of scholarly interest in charting the organization, practice, and meaning of public interest law in the contemporary era. This essay appraises public interest law’s professional inheritance, identifying four critical developments in the field—professionalism, privatization, conservatism, and globalization—and suggesting the challenges they pose for the future of public interest law.

The author discusses the influence of professionalization and the expansion of opportunities in public interest practice, the relation between public interest practice and the private market, focusing on the range of practice sites and the tradeoffs presented in each, the ways in which political conservatism has reshaped the field of public interest law, and the impact of globalization on public interest law.

As the field of public interest law has expanded, there appears to be more institutional support for the development of public interest law careers. As public interest law has become a conventional occupation, it has provided greater career stability and clearer professional ladders. However, there may be downsides to professionalization because public interest lawyers practice in larger organizational settings with more bureaucratized environments and higher proportions of non-lawyer staff. The comforts of professionalism may contribute to deradicalization.

The political backlash to the legal services program’s liberal agenda resulted in efforts to privatize the program and resulted in significant budget cuts that forced legal services offices to rely more heavily on foundations, law firms, individuals, and state and local government funding. Big firm pro bono has grown and there has also been an increase in public interest law firms that take on pro bono work for the opportunity to collect attorney’s fees. The law school clinic has also become a significant force in public interest law. The rise of pro bono may have implications for commitment and expertise and the quality of services provided and may result in certain categories of cases receiving less attention.

The rise of political conservatism has resulted in a declining role of the federal government as the guarantor of the legal rights associated with political liberalism. The ideological shift in the federal judiciary has moved the judiciary to a constitutional vision that is skeptical of economic regulation and claims of minority rights. This has resulted in a shift among liberal groups from doing legal work to spending more time on research, education, and outreach as well as more engagement in legislative work. The increase of the conservative influence has also resulted in a successful effort to restrict the scope of advocacy that can be undertaken by legal aid lawyers to the most routine individual service cases.

Globalization issues that have impacted the ways in which public interest law is practiced include increases in and changes in the pattern of immigration, the search for investment opportunities and low-cost production locales, and the development of an effort by public interest lawyers to import the norms and methods built through international struggle to contest what they view as the erosion of domestic legal standards resulting from new American policy imperatives.

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