Client-Centered Lawyering: Critiques and Alternatives

While the divisions in the Left are abundantly clear when broken down into the various factions and ideologies, in my admittedly anecdotal experience there is considerably less friction when individuals are grouped under an identity umbrella, whether that be broad (queer) or narrow (hard femme MAAB people), experience-based (sexual violence survivors) or career-based (therapists). And that has been my experience both in the legal profession and the broader movements around them. In the prison reform/abolition movement, you have respectable legal organizations like the ACLU working with the most stringent of anarchists and no one bats an eye, though maybe snide comments are said under breaths and passive aggressive tweets are made.

Perhaps it is this cohesion that explains the progressive legal community’s affection for the term “client-centered lawyering.” Client-centered lawyering is exactly as it sounds: a mode of practicing the legal profession where the client’s autonomy is at the forefront. To a certain degree, adherence to a client’s will is not just a matter of politics: it is required by the law. But in public interest law, especially service provision for the so-called indigent clients, this requirement takes on a new life. The lawyer, through their relative privilege and power, becomes a vehicle and megaphone for the client to be able to participate in legal processes without a complete disadvantage. A noble self-sacrifice of the lawyer’s own rationale. Of course a lawyer is generally expected to advise clients when they believe a client’s decision is unwise, but at the end of the day the client is the driver and the lawyer has little choice but to go where they are led.

With all due respect to the many admirable people who advocate the client-centered model, I believe that model is inherently neoliberal in its scope. After all, the rulers of the United States love nothing more than to atomize people into individuals rather than communities: it is easier for them to fight a working class person with a lawyer than a thousand working class people, especially if that lawyer has another 30 clients on retainer. The term “client” itself prescribes a role: the person to be fought for rather than the person who fights, the person who needs services rather than the person who needs solidarity. As someone who was in the nonprofit industry, I saw firsthand how quick even the more Leftist workers were to classify people as one or the other. After all, it is required for all the inane metrics by which the success of a nonprofit is haphazardly measured. And while client-centered lawyering is certainly a better alternative to the careerism that permeates the private sector of the legal profession, it is one that fails to challenge in anyway the predominant mode of relation. It obfuscates that even for the indigent client, the relationship is not one of solidarity but one of economics, and to make matters worse often with the purse strings not in the hands of the community but rather a few wealthy donors or foundations. Perhaps Soros-centered lawyering would be a more apt term if I want to be rather sharp about it.

But I do also want to get to what I see as an alternative. The libertarian-tainted Left posits that community and individuality can be reconciled, and I would attribute that delusion to many of the problems we have, especially in the legal realm. After all, while the economic bottom rung of the LGBTQI community has been left to starve, the individual right to marriage equality was won in Obergefell precisely by the idea that concepts as ideologically distinct as Due Process and Equal Protection are in constitutional wedlock. While the financial state of the Black community has been so resolutely obliterated by the recent recession and failed to make a productive recovery, we are told from Ben Carson to Beyonce that progress is being made due to the individual success of a Black elite.

We have to get creative. Class actions could very well go extinct by the recent death blows dealt by the Federal Arbitration Act et al. Movement lawyering, while certainly needed, is in large part stretching the resources and time of most of its participants since it is nearly always voluntary and unpaid. But we can do something right now, and that’s to make a material commitment to stop the prioritization of service provision, what can become a hopeless race within a system where it is literally impossible for us to win. We need to stop justifying atrocious labor practices that too much of the “public interest” world is willing to engage in. We need to bring democracy to the field, to create alternatives to institutions like ALEC or even the American Law Institute. One friend of mine told me that something like the Trans Pacific Partnership is too big-politics for people like us. That’s so utterly foolish. All that is required is a change in direction, and a refusal to give in to the dominant paradigm. It is risky. But more importantly it is radical, and asserting a radical belief in humanity, not just in a person but in humanity, is the first step to create a lawyering practice that works with the underclass of the world.

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