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Lawyering for poor and subordinated clients has been the subject of significant re-examination over the past decade. Many commentators have provided a critique of traditional lawyering models and some of them have developed new patterns of “community lawyering.” Too often, however, these new models incorporate many of the shortcomings of the traditional model. In particular, they often see the law as a significant part of the answer to the problems of poverty and subordination. While they speak in terms of client empowerment, they focus primarily on the relationship between a lawyer and a client (who is typically an individual). Even when they focus on the products of the lawyer-client relationship, the product tends to be the creation or enforcement of legal rights.

This paper argues that a relational or rights based analysis of the lawyer's role is insufficient to address the real problems of poverty. It begins by reiterating a position that is widely held among progressive lawyers; that the struggle against subordination requires community organizing and collective action. It goes on to discuss the definition and nature of community and the role of a lawyer who seeks to represent “community” interests. Communities are not monolithic and incorporate many different, often competing, views. How should a lawyer distinguish between these views and choose clients so as to maintain a coherence in his or her practice? How should a lawyer relate to a group once a client is chosen? And most importantly, what role should a lawyer play in assisting a client to plan and implement strategies? The paper argues that these strategies often need to be political, not merely legal, and that community lawyers or, as the author has dubbed them, activist lawyers, must participate in building an integrated strategic plan and in its implementation.

Publication Citation

32 Colum. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 67-131 (2000)