A Taxonomy of Non-Profit Public Interest Work

When people think of “public interest lawyers,” they typically are thinking of lawyers practicing law at non-profit organizations. But not all non-profit law jobs are the same. If you are considering this career path, you’ll want to figure out what kind of organization you want to work for and what kind of lawyering you want to do. To help you figure this out, read through the following statements and try to decide which statement or statements best express your view of the legal system:

  1. The law is basically just.
  2. The law is basically just, and we have to work within the system to correct injustice when it happens.
  3. The law is basically unjust, and we have to work within the system to change it.
  4. The law is basically unjust, and we have to work outside the system to change it.
  5. The law is basically unjust, and we have to work to overthrow and replace the current system.

You may be inclined to challenge the premise of this exercise by saying that the statement you agree with will depend heavily on context. Of course it does. But I think most of us have some idea about which statement most closely mirrors our general views about the legal system. Your number might tell you something about the kind of public interest law you want to practice.

Very few lawyers are true 5s (though some may pretend to be after a few drinks). Most revolutionaries don’t go to law school. If they do, they usually quit, are tremendously unhappy, or eventually change their minds. You simply cannot be a lawyer and reject the legal system entirely. Even if you could manage the cognitive dissonance, the rules of professional conduct put limits on what lawyers can ethically do.

At the other end of the spectrum, very few public interest lawyers are 1s either. People become public interest lawyers because they want to change things. 1s don’t believe there is much to change. There are some lawyers who are 1s. They tend to inhabit the upper echelons of the corporate world, law firms, judicial chambers, and other powerful places. It is much easier to believe the legal system is just if you have ended up on top. It is much easier to believe that justice is attainable when you are the one doling it out.

Most public interest lawyers cluster in the 2-4 range, but there are big differences within that range. 

The 2s are lawyers who do not see the injustices in the legal system as systemic. Instead, they see people with individual legal problems. The solution is often more lawyers who can bring more cases on behalf of individuals to solve these problems. 2s tend to cluster at legal services organizations, where the goal is to represent as many people as possible with limited funds, and they tend to frame their advocacy around the idea of “access to justice.” In other words, they believe justice is possible in the current legal system if only people have the resources, legal or otherwise, to access it.

The 3s are the impact litigators. They see the problems in the system, but they believe that the way to change it is from within. This usually means bringing lawsuits, but it can also mean advocating for legislative reform. The best-known examples of organizations that practice this kind of law are the ACLU and the NAACP, but there are many smaller, regional, and local examples. They tend to believe that the legal system can reform itself if confronted with persuasive enough arguments.

The 4s are skeptical that lawyering alone can result in social change. They tend to attach themselves to social movements or grassroots organizing groups that are trying to change the system from the outside, and often call what they are doing community lawyering or law and organizing. There are many fewer organizations that practice this kind of law. My former organization, now called Take Root Justice, is one such organization. 4s may also work for non-legal organizations such as worker centers or other grassroots groups providing legal support. 4s may wonder whether they can actually make a difference practicing law, but they still believe that the system is reformable and see both inside and outside pressure as important to attaining that goal.

It is possible to work at an organization that practices a different kind of law than your number would suggest for you, but a mismatch can lead to unhappiness. It can be frustrating to have a different theory of change than your organization, and may lead you to feeling like you are spinning your wheels.

I teach all three kinds of lawyering in my clinic, both because I want students to have different kinds of experience and because I see value in letting a diversity of lawyering approaches flourish. You won’t find this view in all corners of the public interest world. At each kind of organization, there will be people who think their way is the only way to do things. But as Rebecca Sharpless has written in her article, More Than One Lane Wide, we need all kinds of lawyering to successfully address most social justice problems. (She also points out that the disparaging of legal services in particular is often rooted in sexism and racism, given that legal services attorneys are disproportionately women of color).

Still, believing that all public interest lawyering has value is different than deciding what kind of lawyer you will be. You need to find the place where you are most comfortable and where you will be able to do the most amount of good. So which number are you?

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