What Is Public Interest Law? Empirical Perspectives on an Old Question

Ann Southworth, UC Irvine School of Law


This article presents some preliminary findings from empirical research on public discourse around public interest law. The research treats “public interest law” as a keyword – a phrase that assumes different meanings as it is mobilized by different social actors for different purposes. The article examines two public data sources in which conflict over the meaning of public interest law has been particularly visible: 1) advocacy groups’ self-characterization in U.S. Supreme Court briefs, and 2) accounts in two major newspapers. Together, these sources show that language that once applied to a relatively small number of organizations and practices serving a limited set of constituencies is now claimed by, and used to describe, a much larger set of organizations, actors, policy agendas, and political perspectives. These data also suggest that, during a period when conservative and libertarian groups have become increasingly assertive in claiming the public interest law designation, the media have used the term more cautiously. This struggle over discourse is integrally related to the allocation of some types of legitimacy and resources within the American legal profession. Moreover, it has significant consequences for judicial decision making and policy formation to the extent that public interest law organizations and lawyers exercise special influence tied to their perceived status as champions of underrepresented constituencies.