Public Interest Law: Facing the Problems of Maturity

By Louise G. Trubek | 33 U. ARK. LITTLE ROCK L. REV. 417 (2010).

This article deals with the history and current status of public interest law. It reexamines the seminal work of the 1970s that established public interest law and contrasts the early period with the complexities and challenges today.

The paper opens with a discussion of the key aspects of the public interest enterprise in the 1970s based on an analysis of three key documents. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, young lawyers, leaders of the Bar, and the Ford Foundation created a new institution for the legal profession: the non-profit law firm which set out to advocate on behalf of disadvantaged and underrepresented groups, expanding upon and enhancing earlier civil rights lawyering and poverty legal work. These founders created a well-thought out vision of how to create a major set of institutions that could expand the roles of lawyers and place them in central positions in the dynamic changes taking place in American society. The key documents that express and created this vision and strategy are the Public Interest Law: An Economic and Institutional Analysis, (Weisbrod); “The Public Interest Law Firm: New Voices for New Constituencies, “ (Harrison and Jaffe); and Balancing the Scales of Justice: Financing Public Interest Law in America. These documents provide a well-developed vision and strategy, a new institutional form for practicing law, an expanded professional role for lawyers, a business plan for the financing of these firms and lawyers, and a theoretical and institutional justification for the firms. The enterprise is influencing legal professions and social movements throughout the world and the institutional innovations started in the 1970s have been successful and public interest law has become a permanent part of the U.S. legal system.

Next, the article highlights where we are today by focusing on two unfinished projects: inequality in society and the limits of the regulatory process. Lawyers today are adapting to the 1970s canonical concepts of public interest law in ways that allow them to recommit to the goals and deal with these unfinished projects by forging new tools and practices that are appropriate for today’s more complex context. The author discusses the development of innovative practices and institutions which are redesigning the original concepts of non-profit law firms, appropriate lawyer roles, financial sustainability and the proper functioning of U.S. liberal legalism. This reconstruction can be summed up as increased collaboration, new lawyer roles, additional sources of funding, and recognition of the fragility in the enterprise. A major institutional realignment is occurring with a focus on creating collaborative groups and networks across type of public interest groups, law schools profession and community groups.

Financing public interest lawyers continues to be a challenge. The article discusses the impact of Loan Repayment Assistance Programs, and fellowship and scholarship programs in encouraging law school graduates to pursue public interest careers. The adoption of pro bono programs by law schools and the bar is a major success story becoming an important aspect of both corporate law firm practice and the provision of public interest law services for civil legal services.

Finally, the author discusses the fact that U.S. lawyers are using international laws and networks as opportunities to assist American workers in the areas of immigration and outsourcing of jobs.

The author concludes that the projects of reducing inequality and empowering the unorganized are once again major challenges, but the impressive forty-year history of the public interest law enterprise serves as a signal that a meaningful life in the law can be a realistic goal. Despite the continued financial struggles for many public interest lawyers and firms, jobs exist and are an influential sector of the U.S. profession. The true success of the public interest law enterprise is demonstrated by its ability to motivate lawyers to adapt and revise the practice to meet today’s challenges with today’s tools.

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Posted in: Public Interest Law

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