Professor Alan Childress of Legal Profession Blog emailed me a link to his post on an article by Brenda Bratton Blom entitled Cause Lawyering and Social Movements: Can Solo and Small Firm Practitioners Anchor Social Movements? My answer to the question posed by Blom’s title is that solo and small firm practitioners by our very being and the ideas that we put into action already anchor social movement and drive change in our profession. However, the impression that I get from the article is that solo and small firm lawyers aren’t truly cause lawyers because we’re not adequately integrated into fights for social justice, such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s or (possibly), the big impact cases that advance big causes (personally, I always thought that was what lobbying, not litigating was about). If that’s the definition of cause lawyering, we solo and small firms aren’t cause lawyers, nor can I see why we’d want to be. My lengthy analysis follows.
From Blom’s article (at 1, citing Austin Sarat and Stuart Scheingold) “cause lawyering” is about:
using legal skills to pursue ends and ideals that transcend
client service – be those ideals, social, cultural, political, economic
or indeed, legal.”
And from another quote (Blom at 17):
Cause lawyering cuts against the grain of a widely accepted belief that law and lawyers are supposed to be apolitical agents for resolving society’s conflicts while somehow remain unsullied by them…Cause lawyering is not about neutrality but about choosing sides. Put another way, cause lawyers are focused on the broader stakes of litigation rather than on the justiciable conflict such as such or on the narrow interests of the parties to that conflict. Cases have significance to cause lawyers not as an ends in themselves but as a means to advance causes to which lawyers are committed.
Blom then describes that most solo and small firm lawyers, because we’re focused on our tiny little cases, struggling to survive economically and isolated from the rest of the world, have difficulty acting as cause lawyers. (Blom at 25). Blom does suggest, however, that groups like The Law School Consortium (which finds an enormous fan in my colleague Jon Stein) which trains new law school graduates to represent lower income clients can also help to mobilize solos and bring them together as part of a team can help them engage in cause lawyering.
Though I myself have actually authored scholarly articles, I have to admit that when I read pieces like Blom’s, it’s clear why I have no future in academia: it’s simply too divorced from reality. For example, where does Blom get the idea that solos are scraping by on the edge, living at the mercy of markets by selling our services? Apparently, she’s not reading the same blogs that I am (and since then, there have been even more entries, from Chuck Newton, Susan Cartier Liebel, Basquette Case, Victor Medina and many more I’m sure). Moreover, what’s wrong with “being at the mercy of markets?” That makes us entrepreneurs, savvy business people who have found a way to engage in a noble profession and earn a good living to boot.
At the same time, the whole concept of “cause lawyering” is, in many ways, anathema to solo and small firm practice. What makes us solo and small firm lawyers stand apart is that we build relationships with our clients, who are real people with real problems. And that’s what clients want, as evidenced by the proliferation of blogs focused on client service like What About Clients?, Legal Ease Blog and Golden Practices (again leaving many out). A client who’s been arrested and faces 10 years in jail because of evidence resulting from an unconstitutional search cares about the so-called “narrow issue” of avoiding incarceration – not the broader principles of the Fourth Amendment. We solos and small firms survive and thrive by focusing on what our clients want and educating them about other possibilities; not by subordinating their issues to the big picture or a matter that we personally find more compelling.
So does that mean that we solos are doomed to handling tiny little matters, never leaving a mark on the law? No way. First of all, sometimes, the smallest cases have the biggest impacts, anyway. Second, as I’ve shown, simply by practicing law and offering alternatives to large firm practice, we lawyers are changing our profession. Consider the impact that solos have had on lawyer marketing (it was, after all, a solo who pushed ahead with Bates v. Arizona), on the advancement of women at large firms, we have lawyers like Greatest American Lawyer who’s changing “the way law is practiced,” solos are way out in front in terms of using blogs, and now, using video blogs.
Seems to me that solo and small firm lawyers are cause lawyers already – and in the best possible use of the word. The cause we serve is improving our profession, improving the quality of service that we provide to clients an improving the quality of life for lawyers generally. What better cause is there than that?