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GWENDOLYN LEACHMAN, University of Wisconsin-Madison

  • When: April 5, 2017
  • Where: ABF Woods Conference Room, 750 N. Lake Shore Drive, 4th Floor, Lakeside, Chicago IL 60611

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Cooperating Counsel? Private and Public Interest Lawyering for Marriage Equality

Private law firms have assumed an increasingly central role in social change litigation in recent years, taking on a greater share of cases that have traditionally been the province of nonprofit, cause-oriented public interest groups. While private attorneys frequently work alongside public interest groups to carry out a common strategic vision, their involvement has also produced numerous instances of strategic conflict—particularly when private attorneys pursue “risky” cases that movement groups fear would thwart ongoing impact litigation strategies. This Article draws on interviews with attorneys involved in marriage equality litigation (1990-2015) to explore the factors that promote both cooperation and conflict among private and public interest attorneys. I find that attorneys’ understandings of the goals and risks of social change litigation were infused with organizational prerogatives specific to their distinct practice settings. Public interest attorneys structured their strategies to maximize their cases’ precedential value for future marriage cases and for litigation in other areas in which their organizations were actively involved (e.g., parenting). Private attorneys, on the other hand, emphasized goals related to client service—the traditional focus of private practice—as their primary motivation. While some private attorneys reported this client-focused orientation to be a primary source of conflict with public interest attorneys, those in private firms with established ties to LGBT rights groups deferred to those groups’ impact-focused goals to preserve the ongoing organizational relationship. Thus, while both private and public interest attorneys shared the broad goal of achieving marriage equality, specific organizational incentives and norms critically informed attorneys’ strategic decisionmaking in these cases. The study contributes to sociolegal understandings of legal mobilization by identifying previously unexamined structural factors that may subtly direct and contain social change litigation. 

Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Law School

Gwendolyn M. Leachman is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School and a Faculty Affiliate with the Sociology Department at the University of Wisconsin. Professor Leachman's research examines how the interaction between law and social movements affects patterns of inequality and social change. Much of her recent work investigates how impact litigation has affected the LGBT movement, including the power dynamics among LGBT movement organizations, public perceptions of the LGBT movement, and the compatibility of the mainstream movement's goals with the more underrepresented segments of the LGBT community. She is currently working on comparative projects that investigate how litigation shapes the strategies, goals, and outcomes of social movements of various types.

Professor Leachman received her B.A. with highest honors in Legal Studies and Linguistics from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She received her Ph.D. and her J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where she served in editorial positions at the California Law Review and the Berkeley Journal of Employment & Labor Law, and provided bilingual legal aid to Spanish-speaking clients at La Raza Employment Law Clinic and the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center. Prior to joining the UW faculty, Professor Leachman was a Williams Institute Law Fellow at the UCLA School of Law, where she taught courses to law students and served as the director for the Williams Institute National Moot Court Competition.

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