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The Future of Public Interest Law


The public interest law movement is at the end of its first generation—part of a broader changing of the guard in the legal profession. Although its roots date back to the turn of the twentieth century, public interest law’s institutionalization began in earnest in the 1960s and 1970s with the establishment of the federal legal services program and the launch of the Ford Foundation’s public interest law initiative. Both of these projects transformed the field, creating new opportunities for the wave of entering law students aligned with the social movements of the day and committed to using their legal training to “speak law to power.” Looking back, the founding liberal wing of the movement failed to achieve its most ambitious goals, and questions remain about how much of this failure can be blamed on the limits of liberal legalism versus the power of its opposition. As the movement pivots from vanguard to new guard, there has been a resurgence of scholarly interest in charting the organization, practice, and meaning of public interest law in the contemporary era. Drawing upon this literature, this essay appraises public interest law’s professional inheritance, identifying four critical developments in the field—professionalization, privatization, conservatism, and globalization—and suggesting the challenges they pose for the future of public interest law.

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