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Something to Believe in: Politics, Professionalism and Cause Lawyering.

Something to Believe In: Politics, Professionalism and Cause Lawyering

Stuart A. Scheingold Austin Sarat Stanford University Press 192 pp., $35

Law schools teach, both explicitly and implicitly, that lawyers are simply advocates for their clients' interests. Law students learn that to zealously represent their clients, lawyers must make whatever legal arguments will enhance the probability of winning. Consistent with this approach, the attorney's social conscience is subordinate to a client's representation, and whether a particular legal argument is in the public interest is simply irrelevant. Law students are actually taught that an attorney's ability and willingness to argue any point of view indicate legal professionalism.

For other lawyers, however, the practice of law is a vehicle to express their social conscience. They believe that a lawyer with integrity doesn't sacrifice strongly held beliefs to generate billable hours or contingent fees. They insist that a license to practice law is not a license to be a hypocrite. They consistently represent only clients whose legal interests are consistent with their own concept of social justice. These lawyers are known as "cause lawyers."

According to authors Stuart Scheingold and Austin Sarat, cause lawyers have "something to believe in." Unlike conventional lawyers, they say, cause lawyers think through the social consequences of their legal arguments and reconcile them with a broader concept of social justice: "The defining attribute of cause lawyering is not how beliefs are reconciled ... but rather the simple imperative that they must be reconciled." This process requires a type of intellectual rigor unnecessary for conventional lawyers.

In Something to Believe In, Scheingold and Sarat explore the advent of cause lawyering. They discuss legal education's role in transforming idealistic law students into professionals who have abandoned their ideals and learned to "think like a lawyer." According to the authors, "the overriding purpose of legal education is to ready lawyers for disinterested client service, training them in the hired-gun ethos favored by corporate firms."

They discuss the different opportunities for cause lawyering--including corporate-firm pro bono programs, publicly funded legal-services programs, and privately funded programs like Trial Lawyers for Public Justice and its conservative counterparts--and the problems inherent in each. They examine the role of small law firms, which enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded lawyers and staff, and the independence of self-employment. Scheingold and Sarat also explain at some length the ideological parameters of cause lawyering generally considered acceptable by the legal profession.

The authors assert that the profession strongly reinforces the lessons learned in law school, often resulting in conflict between an attorney's social conscience and the pursuit of the client's legal interests. This conflict alienates many conventional attorneys, although most are well compensated with both income and status.

Scheingold and Sarat note that while cause lawyering may be more personally satisfying than conventional lawyering, dedicated cause lawyers often sacrifice income. Salaried attorneys for public interest organizations are generally the lowest paid in the profession. The authors do not fully appreciate, however, that sacrificing income is not inevitable. Some cause lawyers practicing products liability, medical malpractice, or employment law, for example, have been able to combine the vindication of consumer and employee rights with financial success.

The public correctly understands that many lawyers will make any legal argument in the name of winning, and that for these lawyers promoting social justice is subordinate to generating income. The authors recognize that cause lawyering places a human face on lawyers and provides an alternative to the hired-gun image that dominates the public's view of the legal profession. As a result, cause lawyering has, to a limited extent, been incorporated into the legal establishment's definition of professional responsibility.

Yet significant tension remains between the values of conventional lawyering and those of cause lawyering. Scheingold and Sarat recognize that support for cause lawyering remains strongly contested by the organized legal profession "and the outcome of this contestation remains very much in doubt."

The authors add that "the marginalization of cause lawyering within the legal academy, as within the organized profession, is rooted in understandings of the centrality of disinterested client service to the definition of lawyer professionalism."

Scheingold and Sarat write that "cause lawyering rejects the orthodox conception of fecal professionalism as the commodification of service excellence; of legal education as reducible to learning to think like a lawyer; of legal practice as client loyalty and income maximization; and of public service as civic professionalism and political neutrality." Something to Believe In is a thoughtful and intellectual study of an approach to practicing law that elevates principle over pragmatic self-interest.

JEFFREY NEEDLE is a trial lawyer in Seattle.
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Author:Needle, Jeffrey
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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