Lawyers for Conservative Causes: Clients, Ideology, and Social Distance

By Heinz, John P.; Paik, Anthony et al. | Law & Society Review, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Lawyers for Conservative Causes: Clients, Ideology, and Social Distance


Heinz, John P., Paik, Anthony, Southworth, Ann, Law & Society Review


Scholars have devoted attention to "cause lawyers" on the political left, but lawyers who work on the conservative side of the American political spectrum have received relatively little academic consideration. This article presents systematic data on the characteristics of and relationships among lawyers affiliated with organizations active on a selected set of 17 conservative issues. We find that the lawyers serve several separate and distinct constituencies-business conservatives, Christian conservatives, libertarians, abortion opponents-and that the credentials of the lawyers serving these varying constituencies differ significantly. The greatest degree of social separation occurs between the business constituency and the abortion opponents, with another clear separation between libertarians and the interest groups devoted to traditional family values and order maintenance. The divisions among these constituencies appear to reflect the difference between "insider politics" and "populism," which is manifested in part in actual geographic separation between lawyers located in the District of Columbia and those in the South, West, and Midwest. In the center of the network, however, we find some potential "mediators"-prominent lawyers who may facilitate communication and coordination among the several constituencies. These lawyers and the organizations they serve attempt to merge morality, market freedom, and individual liberty concerns, and they convene meetings of diverse sets of lawyers and organizational leaders to seek consensus on policy goals. Nonetheless, the findings indicate that most organizations are seldom active on issues that lie beyond the relatively narrow boundaries of their own interests.

The American conservative coalition seeks to join together some quite distinct constituencies-religious conservatives who emphasize social order and personal virtue, libertarians who stress individualism and freedom, nationalists who seek to stem immigration and protect the culture of America's middle class, and business interests that oppose regulation, taxes, and union activity.1 Because the goals of these constituencies are sometimes at odds, maintaining the coalition requires effort and diplomatic skill. Some actors, individual and institutional, have characteristics that specially equip them to play the integrative role. Foundations can use their money to encourage cooperation, and lawyers might also have assets that would enable them to be effective in bridging the constituencies. If the bar functions as a professional community, with established communication networks, lawyers might be able to use these ties in the process of building coalitions. Lawyers, especially in the Washington context, have been characterized as professional mediators or "go-betweens" (Horsky 1952:10-11; Mills 1956:288-89).

Much of the work of the conservative movement proceeds through nonprofit organizations, including foundations (Dezalay & Garth 1999; Smith 1991), think tanks (Ricci 1993; Stefancic & Delgado 1996), trade associations, advocacy groups, and public interest law firms (Epstein 1985; O'Connor & Epstein 1983). Lawyers play important roles in these organizations: they help create, maintain, and advise the organizations and they represent them in the forums where law is made. Understanding who these lawyers are, the roles they play, and the relationships among them may thus yield insights about the nature of this political sector and the extent to which its parts are integrated.

Scholars have produced extensive research on lawyers who serve causes associated with America's political left,2 but much less empirical work has focused on the characteristics of lawyers who serve conservative causes, the structure of the relationships among them, or how these variables influence the degree of cohesion within the American conservative coalition. Epstein and O'Connor examined conservative interest groups' use of the courts (Epstein 1985; O'Connor & Epstein 1983), and Houck addressed the propriety of charitable status for business public interest law firms (Houck 1984). …

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