Volume 25

Social Justice Advocacy and Innovation: The Wisconsin Center for PublicRepresentation 1974–Present

by Louise G. Trubek

Social justice practice is undergoing a revival. Access to justice is a watchword in many states; funds and energy are flowing into programs to assist people in courts. Challenges to the rule of law from the Trump administration have energized immigration lawyers who are mounting constitutional and other challenges. Lawyers are mobilizing to protect the Legal Services Corporation. New ideas for social justice lawyering are being put forward, and law students are looking for new opportunities.

In a time of renewed energy and hope, we tend to look forward, not back. Yet recent initiatives must build on existing structures and explore paths taken in the past. For that reason, careful study of past experiences in social justice lawyering must be an essential part of the current revival.

This Article contributes to the social justice lawyering revival by recounting the history of the Center for Public Representation (CPR), a mid-western public interest law firm founded in 1974. Over a 40-year period, CPR experimented with many approaches to social justice lawyering, explored multiple institutional strategies, and developed several innovative programs. The CPR experience offers numerous lessons for those who seek to reinvent social justice lawyering; these include the importance of experimentation, the need for coordination of the local and national, and recognition of the potential role law schools can play in the revival.

The Article divides the history of CPR into three moments, each representing a particular period in the political, economic, and cultural context for social justice lawyering. The 40-year history of the firm was driven by a mixture of local politics and legal culture, individual passion and energy, and national movements and resources. The nature of each of these elements changed with time. While there is continuity throughout, it is possible to show three distinct periods in the life of the firm.

The founding moment took place from 1974−84. It saw the response to national trends by an innovative law school in a progressive state. This was a period when public interest law firms were being created nationally and law schools were beginning to experiment with clinics. The Wisconsin Law School Dean recruited me, a new arrival with public interest law background, to create a civil law clinic that would provide representation for underrepresented groups in state administrative agencies. We chose a non-profit, tax-exempt organizational format that was a hybrid of a free-standing public interest law firm attached to a University of Wisconsin law clinic, thus creating an innovative amalgam of a law firm, a teaching location, and a research site. Without access to the kind of long-term funding available to many public interest law firms at that time, we developed innovative funding strategies and explored multiple advocacy arenas and modalities.

The second moment embraces the late 1980s and 90s. In this period, the state was privatizing government services, funding was available for poverty law work, and students sought more opportunities for individual and community service. CPR and the Law School adapted to these new conditions. The Center paid more attention to poverty and opened a community law office while the school added a course in poverty law. During this period, the state of Wisconsin was privatizing government services, forcing the lawyers and students to develop new ways to voice the concerns of the affected people. The CPR hybrid format was also under financial and organizational stress during this time as support for clinics grew and for public interest law waned.

In the third moment, 2002–present, CPR reinvented itself as the Economic Justice Center (EJI), which is alive and well today. The redesign was result of financial difficulties in the firm, shifts in legal and political atmosphere, and the success of clinical teaching. The free-standing public interest law firm was cut back. EJI houses civil law clinics in consumer, immigration, family law and poverty law. The clinic is housed in the law school but continues to maintain close connections with the Bar and community groups. The EJI clinicians continue the CPR tradition of research on advocacy using social science methodology.

The CPR history offers insights into the choices facing today’s practitioners. Their challenge is how to develop long-term strategies, initiate networks and scale up practices that can meet contemporary needs, utilize law school resources, exploit available technology, and survive into the future. The lawyers are tackling the continuing complexity and contradictions of constructing these practices. In the final part of this Article, I look at a number of lessons from the CPR experience that can help in these struggles.

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