Thinking Like a Public Interest Lawyer: Theory, Practice, and Pedagogy


Law schools must cultivate in future public interest lawyers the combination of intellectual, emotional, and normative thinking required for the complex world of practice. This article presents one such method for teaching critical public interest lawyering: the integration of social theory and public interest practice developed by the Harvard Law School Summer Theory Institute (the Institute). The theory-practice method of the Institute, in which law students engage with theoretical texts while participating in full-time summer internships with public interest organizations, demonstrates the benefits of creating a space where students can draw connections between abstract conceptions of justice and on-the-ground efforts to lawyer for social change. This article uses the theories of Pierre Bourdieu to explore the dichotomy between theory and practice in public interest law, a divide that often inhibits law students’ efforts to pursue social justice lawyering. Drawing upon students’ discussions about three theorists – Michel Foucault, Friedrich Hayek, and David Couzens Hoy – this article demonstrates how theoretical reflection employed in the practice setting can cultivate the kind of normative thinking necessary to transform law students into inspired, self-reflective, and critically-engaged public interest lawyers and agents of social change.

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