Integrative Lawyering: Navigating the Political Economy of Urban Development

74 Pages Posted: 16 Aug 2007 Last revised: 5 May 2014

See all articles by Sheila Foster

Sheila Foster

Georgetown University; University of California, Berkeley - Berkeley Center on Comparative Equality & Anti-Discrimination Law

Brian Glick

Fordham University School of Law


This Article is part of a symposium on "Race, Economic Justice and Community Lawyering." In it, we explore how contemporary urban development practices present intriguing challenges for lawyers representing community-based organizations working to proactively rebuild their communities into ones that are both socially just and ecologically sustainable. Lawyers representing such organizations have become used to reacting against the environmentally unsustainable decisions others make that shape the character and decrease the quality of their surrounding communities. More recently, however, these lawyers have had to become more proactive players, helping client organizations envision the type of development that will best serve their constituents and obtain the tools to implement that vision, including extracting community benefits from private developers who supply the development capital. This new role requires a shifting, flexible mix of skills and a more dynamic interaction with the organization and its varied functions - policy, community education, lobbying, and organizing.

This new role is what we call "integrative lawyering," an emergent model of community lawyering that we identify and explore in the context of our experience working for and with an environmental justice organization, West Harlem Environmental Action ("WE ACT"), in New York City. We argue that "integrative lawyering" has emerged at WE ACT, and similar organizations, through the efforts of lawyers and community based organizations to intervene in, and respond to, the changing political and economic dynamics of contemporary urban development. Specifically, the decentralization of political power and capital in urban development has significantly shifted the roles of public and private players in development deals. The City, or local government, has become a weaker player in a more dispersed system of influence/power that drives urban development today, while communities now view themselves as potential players in the development "game."

We illustrate how these dynamics play out within the context of an ongoing and contested proposal by Columbia University in New York City to expand its campus into West Harlem, thereby threatening a number of grave environmental, economic, social, and development consequences to nearby communities. WE ACT's intense involvement in planning, developing, resourcing and negotiating the community response to the University's proposal exposes the limitations of relying exclusively on legal/regulatory tools to extract gains for community interests in the thick political economic context of urban development. This experience also illuminates the demands placed on lawyers operating in this new context to engage more fully and dynamically in and with the entire range of the organization's multi-faceted efforts.

We argue that to be effective in navigating the political and economic forces illustrated in the WE ACT case study, community lawyers need to work "integratively" in two interconnected ways - "role integration" and "organizational integration". At the level of role integration, WE ACT's lawyers, like their client, have needed to integrate a broad range of practice areas, skills and roles when seeking to build/enhance community efficacy. And at the level of organizational integration, they have also needed to ensure that their work is thoroughly integrated into the overall strategy, programs, and processes of the community based organization so that the lawyering ties closely with the organization's community efficacy efforts. We conclude by identifying the ways that WE ACT's legal team, working with its organizers and other staff members, has been working to synthesize the organization's legal, education, policy and lobbying efforts toward the creation of new structures for community ownership of land, housing and other facilities that its constituents seek to gain from the expansion project. Although the Columbia University expansion project is ongoing and remains contested, the model of integrative lawyering that is developing at WE ACT yields immediate lessons that transcend this particular dispute.

Suggested Citation

Foster, Sheila and Glick, Brian, Integrative Lawyering: Navigating the Political Economy of Urban Development. California Law Review, Vol. 95, 2007, Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1007214, NYLS Clinical Research Institute Paper No. 07/08-2, Available at SSRN:

Sheila Foster (Contact Author)

Georgetown University ( email )

Washington, DC 20001
United States

University of California, Berkeley - Berkeley Center on Comparative Equality & Anti-Discrimination Law

Boalt Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States

Brian Glick

Fordham University School of Law ( email )

140 West 62nd Street
New York, NY 10023
United States

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