After Public Interest Law
47 Pages Posted: 25 Oct 2005 Last revised: 2 Oct 2009
This essay reviews Professor Jennifer Gordon's Suburban Sweatshops: The Fight for Immigrant Rights (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005). Gordon's book is a self-reflective account of the genesis and development of the Workplace Project, an organization that she established in the early 1990s to combat the growth of modern-day sweatshops in Long Island - restaurants, car washes, construction companies, and domestic work arrangements characterized by immigrant labor abuse. By creatively combining grassroots organizing and legal advocacy, Gordon won significant victories for immigrant workers and built the Workplace Project into a nationally recognized model of innovative public interest lawyering. For her contributions to the field, she was awarded the prestigious MacArthur genius grant in 1999.
Our review suggests that beneath Suburban Sweatshops' account of the Workplace Project's impressive accomplishments lies an ambivalence about public interest law that reflects the impact of major structural and ideological changes in the field. We therefore situate the Workplace Project within the context of public interest law's transformation over the past 30 years both as a way of explaining its appeal as an alternative model of public interest practice and reappraising its core programmatic commitment to organizing as a political strategy. We then draw upon the lessons the book offers to look forward to the future of public interest law, highlighting the central political challenges, theoretical issues, and methodological questions that lie ahead. In this way, we read Suburban Sweatshops as a crucial scholarly turning point in the public interest law field, grounded in the orthodox liberal critique of public interest lawyering while nevertheless pointing to a richer, more nuanced understanding of the contributions of law to social change.
Keywords: public interest lawyering,immigrant rights, poverty law
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