The Future of Public Interest Law

16 Pages Posted: 9 Aug 2011 Last revised: 15 Aug 2011

See all articles by Scott L. Cummings

Scott L. Cummings

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law

Date Written: August 9, 2011


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 - based on a lecture given at the UALR Altheimer Symposium - 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.

Keywords: public interest law movement, federal legal services program, NGOs, pro bono programs

Suggested Citation

Cummings, Scott L., The Future of Public Interest Law (August 9, 2011). University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review, Vol. 33, p. 1, 2011, UCLA School of Law Research Paper No. 11-24, Available at SSRN:

Scott L. Cummings (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

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