“What’s the best advice you never got when it comes to public interest law”

Editor's Note: This post is published as part of a series of works submitted by applicants to Ms. JD's 2014 Public Interest Scholarship Program. Each applicant was asked to describe the best advice they never got when it came to law school, lawyering, or public interest law. Applications for the 2014 Scholarship are now closed. For more information on Ms. JD's programs and scholarships, click HERE.

Public interest law’s greatest resource is the public.  Public interest lawyers are out-resourced by their opponents in every measurable category, with the exception of those whose lives are impacted by their work.  Thus, the most significant lesson I learned about public interest law is the power of public dissemination and community engagement.

As a grassroots organizer, I co-authored a referendum against a commercial development ("the development") in my town of Albany, California. The referendum became the first of its kind to pass in the City of Albany.  Although the referendum was strongly opposed by both the City of Albany and the developer, its passage was possible because I engaged directly with voters and publicly disseminated the development through social media and the local press.  I was opposed to the development because it was in violation of our city’s climate action plan and affordable housing ordinance.  Throughout the referendum process, I was able to clarify information regarding the development through the media.  As a result, voters whom were initially opposed to the referendum became more receptive to its position and many eventually signed it, allowing it to pass.

Had I exclusively relied on participating in city council meetings or litigation, the issues driving our position against the development would have never reached the public.  Most significantly, by publicly disseminating both the development and the referendum through the media, voters gained a voice in determining the future of the development.  Public dissemination is essential to public interest law simply because it informs the public on issues that directly impact their community.  Thus, setting the groundwork for public interest litigation and legislation.

Although public interest attorneys cannot control the manner in which public interest matters are disseminated through the media, they are able to determine how well they know their clients and the legal barriers they face.  Throughout the referendum process, I gathered signatures door-to-door, spoke at length with senior residents whom would have been impacted by the development; and I remain engaged with them to this day because the threat of unafforable housing does not end with one project. Afforable housing is an on-going issue for our underserved communities. When public interest attorneys remain engaged and genuinely understand their clients’ struggles, they are able to convey the underlying policies with greater precision to the media.  In doing so, public interest attorneys promote meaningful public dialogue on issues directly impacting their clients' welfare.  It cannot be understated how much public perception impacts legislation, the appointment of judges and local elections. Thus, public interest attorneys whom actively participate in community engagement are furthering the interests of their clients on an immeasurably grand social scale.

Furthermore,  community engagement is fundamentally essential for the purpose of genuinely understanding their clients’ struggles, without the distortion of privilege.  There is a gulf of privilege between public interest attorneys  and their underserved clients.  Community engagement closes that gap, brings attorneys and clients closer to a mutual understanding of the legal barriers and issues their clients face, and formulate meaningful remedies for their clients.

Thus, the most valuable lesson I learned in public interest law was that one cannot achieve social progress without engaging the public and remaining engaged.  In the age of technology and information, the possibilities are endless. 

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