Volume 34

Making Public Interest Lawyers in a Time of Crisis: An Evidence-Based Approach

by Catherine Albiston, Scott L. Cummings, & Richard L. Abel

Now is a critical time to consider the role that lawyers—and the law schools that produce them—can play in movements for social transformation. Over the past half-century, public interest lawyers who represent subordinated communities in the pursuit of equal justice have contributed significantly to such movements: mobilizing law to fight discrimination, expand access to social benefits, promote the inclusion of immigrants and others branded outsiders, and protect the rights of low-wage workers and the unhoused. Although some law schools have invested resources to train students seeking public interest careers, more continue to focus on placing students in lucrative law firm jobs. In part to attract students in a competitive environment, law schools project a neoliberal conception of legal education that seeks to maximize return on investment, rather than promoting the professional role of lawyers in democratic society. Even those law schools dedicated to helping students enter public interest careers lack basic information about which interventions are most likely to work. This Article provides the first systematic empirical evidence about what law schools can do to help students build long-term public interest careers. Based on original data collected through a National Science Foundation-funded survey of a decade of graduates from six California law schools, this Article looks beyond the drift away from public interest work during law school to analyze the factors that promote what we call “public interest persistence,” or dedication to public interest work throughout one’s career. Using statistical techniques to evaluate endowment effects—what students bring to law school—and educational effects—what they experience there—we reveal the underappreciated ways that law schools do, in fact, matter in shaping public interest careers. In particular, we find that law schools play a crucial facilitative role: guiding students toward public interest careers through externships, summer jobs, and extracurricular activities that equip students with the tools they need to navigate the public interest job market and pursue social justice over the course of their professional lives. Based on these new findings, the Article offers policy recommendations for how law schools can build on current programs in support of public interest careers. We also call for law schools to reconceptualize public interest practice, broadly defined, as an element of professional identity in light of current threats to marginalized communities and the rule of law.

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