Connecting to the Profession
“Cause lawyers” and “hybrid” firms
In the 1960s and 1970s, public interest law was generally understood to be associated with causes that represented the political left. “Ralph Nader [’58] was the icon of public interest law, taking on the mantle of protecting the public interest—unrepresented groups such as poor people,” said HLS Professor David B. Wilkins ’80. The field “was informed by rights law—civil rights, consumer activism and women’s rights, for example—and by a set of ideas associated with liberalism and the left,” he said.
But as early as the Nixon presidency and certainly by the Reagan era, there was a backlash against the idea that only the left represented the public interest, and an army of conservative lawyers has been growing ever since.
“The interesting thing is that they directly modeled themselves on the lawyers they were trying to critique,” Wilkins noted. Conservative lawyers learned to use the tools that the left had so skillfully employed to advance their causes: lobbying, the media and direct marketing. Many of them are funded by conservative political organizations and foundations with deep pockets.
The term “public interest law” has given way to “cause lawyering,” which connotes using legal skills to advance a moral or political value, said Wilkins. “We’re talking about lawyers who are ideologically committed to the cause they represent,” he said.
Organizations like The Heritage Foundation and the Christian Legal Defense Fund didn’t even exist before the 1980s, and now they’re thriving and funding lawsuits on behalf of a conservative agenda. “There hasn’t been as much activity on the left,” Wilkins said.
But the tremendous growth in cause lawyering on the right has prompted those who are less conservative to sit up and take notice. The American Constitution Society was recently created as a liberal alternative to the highly successful Federalist Society.
A related trend is the emergence of “hybrid” law firms—organizations that do both nonpaying and paying work. In the last 10 to 15 years, Wilkins said, hybrid firms have “picked up steam” because some lawyers want to have more independence and make more money than they would in traditional cause organizations.
Some of those joining hybrids are coming out of private firms where they did a lot of pro bono, or from public interest organizations where they felt constrained. In the hybrids, they can do paying work that subsidizes the nonpaying work. For example, some lawyers both do employment discrimination cases for plaintiffs and advise employers on how to avoid engaging in employment discrimination.
Jennifer Klar ’02 is an associate at one hybrid firm, Relman & Associates, a private/public interest law firm that handles only civil rights cases. The firm does billable work but only if its members believe it will advance the cause of civil rights. “Right now I represent a nationwide class action of African-American Secret Service agents who have been discriminated against because of their race,” she said. The agents, she alleges, were routinely denied promotions or good assignments.
“I came here because I wanted to be a civil rights litigator,” Klar said. “I wanted to do it myself—not be in a lawyers committee-type role. I wanted to take the depositions.” Because Relman & Associates pays salaries comparable to or better than those at the Justice Department, Klar can also pay her mortgage.
But, said Wilkins, because of their narrower profit margins, hybrid firms are financially vulnerable: “It only takes a few defections to bring one down. It’s something they have to worry about all the time.”
— Christine Pakkala
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