Chapter One: Social Justice Ideals: From Theory to Law Practice

Critics decry the state of legal education, citing issues such as too much debt, too many lawyers, and no jobs for graduates. These discussions rarely mention that low-income people need more lawyers or that the field of social justice law provides opportunities for law school graduates to follow the passions that brought them to law school, including serving others and seeking justice.  Studies generally find that the average American cannot afford a lawyer. 1 Often, the proportion of unrepresented individuals exceeds 80%. 2 Many students choose law school because they care about social justice.  Social justice lawyers seek to give material meaning to the democratic ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence.  It is important to evaluate all of the important steps needed to move your commitment to social justice from theory to practice.


The founders envisioned a country in which “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were inalienable rights, “consent of the governed” legitimated the power of the government, and all citizens were “created equal.” Yet as Justice Thurgood Marshall observed on the bicentennial celebration of the Constitution: “the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for individual freedoms and human rights, that we hold as fundamental today.” 3 Social justice lawyers work as part of that ebb and flow of change that keeps social justice lawyers and their clients striving for the democratic ideals the founders envisioned. Social justice lawyers, working with communities engaged in struggle, have played and continue to play a key role in the ongoing work to define and practice democracy for all.

As one recent social justice casebook observed:

The twenty-first century marks a challenging but exciting time to become a lawyer. Great social movements in the last century brought dramatic changes in society and law. The labor movement won the right to organize collectively, representing at its height about one-third of the American workforce. The civil rights movement ended state-sanctioned racial segregation and renegotiated societal values in the worlds of education, employment, housing, public accommodation, and voting. The women’s movement also changed the face of education and work, as well as the notion of a subordinate role for women in society. Activism by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people fighting for equality continues. These movements as well as those for disability rights, environmental justice, consumer rights, health care, and criminal justice have all involved both national trends and local manifestations.  4

Work for social justice continues on all of these fronts. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The possibilities to promote equity and inclusion are truly limitless. There is not a segment of society untouched by disparities, structural inequities, outdated norms or failure to adhere to the rule of law. Newer issues that have emerged in mental health treatment, intellectual property, tax code bias and reproductive autonomy are among some areas that need committed and engaged activists.

“I decided to attend law school in order to compliment my Masters in Social Work. I have always worked with domestic violence survivors as a social worker and the law degree to my mind would help me to become a better advocate for the population I work with.” — Khadijah, 1L

Those who are committed to social justice must pursue endeavors that challenge both legal skills and emotional intelligence. Law school, the profession, and the larger culture often marginalize social justice work, so building a network of support and nurture is key to success. Professor Sylvia Law advises:

[N]urture a group of friends who share your values. Friendship requires time and effort; lawyers and law students are crippled when the organization of their lives leads them to believe that they do not have time for friendship. We need our friends to help us figure out who we are, what we think, and what sort of world we want to help to create. None of us can do it alone. 5

Classrooms and coursework provide opportunities for building that friendship network and so do public service opportunities. But as you read this guide and reflect on the advice here, you should think carefully about whether you actually need a law degree to achieve your goals. Law schools is an expensive, time-consuming enterprise. We want to empower you to make the best law school choice for you – even if that choice means not attending law school. That is a tough decision only you can make.

This guide provides a significant resource for learning about the path for the aspiring social justice lawyer. Social justice lawyering is also a path of continued self-education. Enjoy that path and make a difference in the world.


  1. George Critchlow, Brooks Holland & Olympia Duhart, The Call for Social Justice The Call for Lawyers Committed to Social Justice to Champion Accessible Legal Services through Innovative Legal Education, UNLV L. REV. (publication forthcoming).
  2. Gillian K. Hadfield & Jamie Heine, Life in the Law-Thick World: The Legal Resource Landscape for Ordinary Americans, in BEYOND ELITE LAW: ACCESS TO CIVIL JUSTICE FOR AMERICANS OF AVERAGE MEANS, S. Estreicher and J. Radice (eds.) (2015).
  3. Thurgood Marshall, Reflections on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution, 101 Harv. L. Rev. 1, 1-2 (1987).
  4. Martha R. Mahoney, John O. Calmore, and Stephanie M. Wildman, Social Justice: Professionals, Communities and Law 2d 3 (2013). 
  5. Sylvia A. Law, The Messages of Legal Education, in Looking at Law School 171 (Stephen Gillers ed., 4th ed. 1997).