Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Re-Conceptualizing Poverty Law Clinical Curriculum and Legal Services Practice: The Need for Generalists

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Re-Conceptualizing Poverty Law Clinical Curriculum and Legal Services Practice: The Need for Generalists

Article excerpt

--legal education sharpens the mind by narrowing it. (1)

The Specialization of Poverty Law
How Specialization Cheats Impoverished Clients
Community-Based, Client-Centered, and Holistic Legal
     Services Require Generalists
Providing General Legal Services--One Clinic's Experience
Advantages and Criticisms of a "Generalist" Clinical Model


We are all familiar with the now romantic-seeming, "Lincolnesque" vision of the generalist lawyer, the trusted counselor who knows you and your family, who drafts your will, defends your teenager in criminal court, and files and tries your breach of contract case. (2) We are also conditioned to believe that the existence of such a lawyer is relegated to the past and that any lawyer whose practice conforms to this model is inefficient, ignorant, and likely guilty of malpractice. (3) There are many reasons for the prevailing view. The trend toward specialization has been well-documented, and is pervasive. (4) Many of us live and work in an environment that is always electronically connected. As a result our clients and we expect instantaneous answers and advice on complex legal matters. Many of us live in large metropolitan areas with correspondingly large national and international law firms whose personnel and even firm identities are in constant flux. There is no trusted solo practitioner down the street or around the corner in this environment, nor could such a lawyer provide us with the immediate answers or information on a specialized topic that we have come to expect. (5) This change has not only affected lawyers and clients in a business setting; it also has infiltrated the provision of legal services to the poor, and our ideas about clinical legal education. (6)

This Essay discusses how the legal profession and clinical legal education became so specialized. The Essay argues that specialization hurts impoverished clients, and argues for greater recognition of the value of poverty law "generalists." Finally, this Essay identifies several models for the provision of more general poverty law services and discusses the use of an exemplary model in a law school clinic.


Poverty law is not a specialized field. Rather, as described by Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, it is a "shorthand for the myriad areas of law that affect poor people." (7) Excluding the criminal justice system, those myriad legal fields include the areas of public benefits, housing, estate and guardianships, family, bankruptcy, consumer, employment, small business, and in increasingly larger parts of the nation, immigration. (8) Each of these broad categories can have multiple potential areas for sub-specialization. For example, the category of family law for poverty lawyers often includes domestic violence, child guardianships, child support, adoption, divorce, child abuse and neglect, foster care, and the termination of parental rights. (9) A daunting list, even for experienced lawyers? Absolutely. And that is why lawyers and legal offices serving poor clients have increasingly specialized and narrowed the scope of the legal services they provide. (10)

In some instances, entire organizations providing legal services to impoverished clients specialize in only one area of law. (11) Other large legal services organizations have compartmentalized their services, dividing themselves into specialized practice groups that resemble those of large law firms. (12) The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, California's largest and oldest legal services provider, boasts eight specialized "units" of practicing attorneys and staff. (13) Wisconsin's largest low income legal services provider, Legal Action of Wisconsin, Inc., has five separate specialized units. (14) Greater Boston Legal Services' website states, "Our staff of 68 attorneys and 27 paralegals is divided into areas of legal expertise to best address the problems faced by people living in poverty. …

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