What Is Public Interest Lawyering?

Because this blog is about public interest lawyering, it is important to define what exactly I mean by the term. We could define it as all legal work not done for a remunerative purpose, but rather to achieve some other goal. This definition is convenient if we want to ignore the fact that people disagree about what is in the public interest.

Take abortion rights as an example. Pro-choice lawyers spend their careers fighting to protect and expand abortion rights. Pro-life advocates spend their careers trying to cut back and eliminate abortion rights. Under this first definition of public interest lawyering, both sides could be engaging in public interest lawyering, even though they seek to achieve diametrically opposed goals. In both cases, it is not money that motivates the lawyers, but principles of equality and justice. They simply happen to disagree about how to interpret what those principles mean.

A second definition of public interesting lawyering is legal work that contributes to the public good. This definition involves a normative judgment – what exactly do we mean by the public good? In the abortion rights example, this definition would cause us to conclude that pro-life and pro-choice advocates cannot both be acting in the public interest because they have diametrically opposed goals, and therefore only one or the other is engaging in public interest lawyering.

This definition has obvious drawbacks too. Who am I to decide what is in the public interest? I am just one person.

But I think it is difficult, if not impossible, to set normative judgments aside completely. I want to help people become public interest lawyers not only so that they can find personal fulfillment and happiness, but also so that they can make the world a better place. To take one extreme example, someone may believe quite strongly that legalizing eugenics would be in the public interest, but I have no desire to help him reach that goal because I think he is wrong. The fact that he thinks he is acting in the public interest is immaterial to me.

I also think that focusing on remuneration is misguided. You can do good things while still making money. There are many lawyers – private public interest law firms are one example – who make good money while also contributing to the public good. There is nothing wrong with that.

Accordingly, you will notice on this blog that I do not shy away from making normative judgments about the conduct of lawyers and the legal profession. I also define public interest lawyering to involve some private sector work that views contribution to the public good as one of its central purposes.

If you find yourself disagreeing with me, great! Drop me a note telling me how.

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