A Home of Its Own: The Role of Poverty Law in Furthering Law Schools' Missions

By Failinger, Marie A. | Fordham Urban Law Journal, May 2007 | Go to article overview

A Home of Its Own: The Role of Poverty Law in Furthering Law Schools' Missions


Failinger, Marie A., Fordham Urban Law Journal


Eighteen years ago, I (perhaps optimistically) suggested that poverty law was "home at last" in the legal academy. (1) At that time, the American Association of Law Schools ("AALS") Section on Poverty Law was growing, which suggested that poverty law had arrived as its own discipline. (2) Also, Loyola New Orleans School of Law's emerging poverty law program--which was designed to engage every student in that school in the subject of poverty law--promised to provide a model for a bold new beginning for the discipline of poverty law in American law schools. (3) Yet, only recently, other members of the Section on Poverty Law and I were wondering why the Section's Annual Meeting Program on the exciting new "Civil Gideon" effort in several states (4) went largely unattended by the mainstream academy.

To the nostalgic, we might seem light years away from the heady days of the late 1960s and the early 1970s, when scholars like Jean and Edgar Cahn asked questions like "Power to the People or the Profession?" in distinguished publications, such as the Yale Law Journal. (5) Indeed, more recent arrivals to the discipline of poverty law may even yearn for the early 1990s, when academics attempted to produce textbooks, scholarship, and curriculum plans for substantive poverty courses, and to organize an "Interuniversity Consortium on Poverty Law" with the support of the Ford Foundation. (6)

Lawyers and academics dedicated to poverty law, however, cannot afford to be a nostalgic lot. As the saying goes, the poor are always with us, and the interest of the legal academy in poverty law tends to wax and wane as regularly as society's interest in skinny ties or short skirts. One response to that reality might be for poverty law scholars to dig in their heels and promise themselves that they will not give up their commitments and their courses, no matter what their enrollments, and no matter how isolated they may feel in their institutions or within the wider academy. So long as mortality, and even retirement, are facts of life, however, the success of that response depends upon the fortuity that there will continue to be enough young legal services and public interest lawyers who want to succeed them in the move from practice to the academy. It also depends upon the presumption that those lawyers' dedication to their former clients and practice colleagues will be strong enough to sustain that self-promise as faculty politics, decanal demands, and the allure of recognition and rewards from teaching and writing in other fields exert their influence on the shape of their professional lives.

A second, ultimately more promising response, I believe, is a two-fold strategy. First, law professors and lawyers who are committed to the teaching and practice of poverty law need to "get under the skin" of their law school environment. Poverty law academics, both classroom and clinical teachers, can play a leadership role in integrating poverty law courses into the life and distinctive missions of their law schools in such a way that their law school faculty will be as hard-pressed to imagine a curriculum without poverty law as they would be to contemplate legal education without Torts or Civil Procedure. Second, if there is one thing that practicing and teaching poverty law has taught the academy, it is that aging poverty law faculty have a moral obligation to serve as community-building "elders" for newer poverty law scholars in the academic community.

While the practicalities of keeping together this larger community of poverty law scholars are beyond the scope of this Article, I will propose that the first objective--"getting under the institution's skin"--is not necessarily the impossible goal it might seem to those who have struggled to keep poverty law alive and visible in their law schools. To them, such a proposal may seem as unthinkable as the suggestion that poverty lawyers could convince political parties to make an anti-poverty platform the central ongoing theme of election politics. …

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