Constructing Cause Lawyering: Professionalism, Politics, & Social Change in 1960s America

431 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2014

Date Written: January 31, 2006


Prior to 1969 a mere fifteen legal organizations devoted themselves to serving the causes of civil rights, civil liberties, and the needs of poor people. By 1975 that number had jumped to more than eighty.This "explosion" of explicitly activist lawyering marked a significant change in the composition of the American legal profession. More importantly, these lawyers shaped American social movements and politics in the era. Though it has long been understood that lawyers played a role in the upheavals in American society of the 1960s, no study has attempted to bring the many pieces together and set it within the historiography of the era. This dissertation thus sets the role of lawyers in a broad historical context, showing the ways in which the 1960s both shaped and were shaped by "cause" lawyering. In uncovering this history, the dissertation argues that one cannot simply understand "cause" lawyering as a single category of professional action. Rather, part of the struggle within the profession centered on the question of what type of cause lawyering was acceptable. Thanks to a variety of forces, both internal and external to the profession -- including social movements, philanthropic foundations, and changes in political alignment and philosophy -- lawyering that featured elite-led, court-based strategies thrived and survived while lawyering that deemphasized the importance of lawyers and litigation withered. Individual chapters explore the Supreme Court case of NAACP v. Button, lawyering during the direct action phase of the southern civil rights movement, the growth and collapse of the federally-funded Legal Services Program, radical lawyering and the anti-war movement, and the development of "public interest" lawyering for environmental, consumer, and government accountability causes.

Keywords: cause lawyering, legal history, sixties, professionalism, social movements

Suggested Citation

Hilbink, Thomas, Constructing Cause Lawyering: Professionalism, Politics, & Social Change in 1960s America (January 31, 2006). Available at SSRN: or

Thomas Hilbink (Contact Author)

Open Society Institute ( email )

400 W. 59th Street
New York, NY 10019
United States

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