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51 Washington University Journal of Law & Policy 95 (2016)
Originally published in the Washington University Journal of Law & Policy.


This essay asserts that incorporation of the public's interests in lawyers' daily work is an essential responsibility of the profession. The Preamble to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct frames this lawyers' duty as that of a "public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice." Yet the modem legal profession has reduced "public interest" practice to work that is done for no or almost no fee. The transformation of lawyer from public citizen to servant of mostly private interests has taken place over the last thirty-five years, following the legal profession's embrace of pro bono work by volunteer lawyers.

To understand this change, the authors look at current pro bono culture and trace the tools that were developed to cultivate it from seedlings. These tools include: the use of coordinators for volunteer attorneys (beginning with a federal requirement for legal services programs that accompanied funding cuts during the early 1980s); Model Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1-Voluntary Pro Bono Publico Service; rankings systems promoted by legal publications; a proliferation of awards for pro bono service; and law student organizations that promote and provide pro bono service in collaboration with the local bar. Society, government and the legal profession use the pro bono and "public interest" labels to allocate resources and legitimacy. The authors examine these classifications and conclude that the boundaries of "public interest" need to be expanded.

How might the profession cultivate the ideal of lawyer as public citizen into the client-centered private practice of law and also lift up the lawyers who already are bringing value to the public through their private practice? This essay, the first of two planned pieces, will analyze how the profession came to equate public service with pro bono and to unintentionally narrow the definition of public interest law work. The second essay will suggest a few practical actions for expanding the profession's working definitions and practice of public interest work.