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Friday, April 06, 2018

Legal Ed's Futures: No. 53 (Dan Rodriguez)

Public Interest Law v. law in the public interest

I was working my way through, albeit clumsily, this distinction while listening last evening to the recollections of some of our extraordinary alumni at our annual public interest awards banquet.  I would capture this distinction thusly, and with reference to the myriad careers law graduates pursue:

Public interest lawyers are working (tirelessly, constructively, impactfully) on serving clients who are seeking redress for private and publicly inflicted harms, who are being defended against criminal prosecution and various threats through the civil or administrative process, and are in some way looking for lawyers for help and for service in a world of injustice and of maldistributed legal resources.  Public interest law is a big tent and, while it faces enormous (and perhaps growing) challenges, is now well instantiated as an essential element in our profession and a worthwhile career path for young law graduates.  I won't say it is in its heyday, because every public interest lawyer I know looks longingly for a future in which this work is more remunerative, more valued, and more common as an avocation for new lawyers.

Law in the public interest is a more capacious and unsteady category.  It involves the manifold ways in which lawyers represent and advice clients in "ordinary" public and private matters and do so zealously, but with the large aim of promoting public interest.  I think of a lawyer who assists a state legislator in drafting a reform to consumer protection as undertaking law in the public interest.  Too, I think of a lawyer assisting a startup in developing an app that will provide low-income individuals with more user-friendly resources to navigate, say, the disaster relief process also doing law in the public interest.  Readers will have other, and perhaps more apt, examples.

To me, the dichotomy is important in helping better frame curricular and programmatic agendas in law schools.  All of us will have limited bandwith for initiatives that are directly concerned with Public Interest Law.  And, frankly, there will be a ceiling for student demand for these initiatives, given their career ambitions (endogenous to the economic model of legal education to be sure) and the configuration of law faculties.  So, at bottom, law schools will attend to Public Interest Law to only some extent -- should be more, but will only do so much.  By contrast, I think that we would do well to see law in the public interest as an imperative to promote throughout the curriculum, as part of, to use Deborah Rhode's truly memorable phrase, a pervasive method.  How will the representation of this client serve the public interest, as well as her private, and typically pecuniary, interest?  How will the development of creative legal solutions enabled by new technologies further public interest agendas alongside the economic interests of actors availing themselves of these technologies?  Folks in the vanguard of thinking about, say, blockchain and autonomous vehicles are considering such questions, and law schools should be encouraging and incentivizing these ventures.

So, my point is a small one in the grand theme of things, and a rather abstract one.  I offer it as a slight help in framing our objectives.  Constructing programs and curricula to further law in the public interest is a salutary task to be considered as larger, and perhaps realistically more comprehensively than, ambitions to expand offerings and opportunities in Public Interest Law (although, let me say again, such goals are worthy in their own right).

Dan Rodriguez (Northwestern)


Posted by Dan Rodriguez on April 6, 2018 at 06:54 PM | Permalink


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