Resistances and Possibilities: A Critical and Practical Look at Public Interest Lawyering


A critical perspective is beginning to emerge in the field of lawyering for the disadvantaged. It has been variously referred to as “critical lawyering,” “rebellious idea of lawyering,” and “the new public interest law.”‘ It is an approach that questions the effectiveness of well-established concepts of lawyer-advocacy on behalf of poor and otherwise marginalized groups, and raises troubling issues for many whose ideas of lawyering for the disadvantaged have remained essentially unchanged since the War on Poverty. The “critical lawyers” (as we will call them) observe that neither our society nor our ideas about how to change it have improved much since that time. If anything, things have gotten worse for marginalized people and their advocates in the eighties. The new critical approaches to poverty lawyering are a response to this increasingly inhospitable and apparently intractable situation, as well as a rejection of older models of lawyering which have not succeeded in bringing about promised change.

In this Article, we attempt to illustrate the “critical lawyering” perspective in three ways: first, by identifying some aspects of the traditional approaches to public interest lawyering rejected by the critical lawyers; second, by providing an overview of the critical lawyer’s constructive vision; and third, by recounting the stories of two new practitioners as they negotiate difficult transitions from traditional to critical lawyering approaches. We then make a number of observations regarding the matrix of personal, professional, and practical obstacles faced by public interest practitioners who seek to radically change their approach and realize the transformative potential of the critical lawyering vision.

Our observations regarding “resistances” and “possibilities” correspond to the dual goals of this Article. We seek both to advance critical lawyering as a viable alternative to traditional public interest practice and to explore the practical difficulties of its realization. We hope that this Article may both inspire practitioners of public interest law to begin to rethink their own practices, as well as contribute to an emerging body of scholarship by examining some of the practical barriers to the realization of the critical lawyering vision.

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