ISNTITUTIONAL LOGICS AT PLAY: LAW FIRMS, PUBLIC INTEREST ORGANIZATIONS & ACCESS TO CIVIL JUSTICE
Northwestern University, Department of Sociology
In the United States, there is no right to a lawyer for civil disputes. Therefore, millions of poor individuals who cannot afford to pay for legal services are left without representation for matters as critical as domestic violence, evictions and deportations. Research has shown that lawyers are necessary to facilitate the transformation of legal disputes into claims and are key in navigating the complexities of the legal system. Because of the limited resources available to public interest organizations and requirements set by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), pro bono or free legal services provided by large law firms has taken a stronghold as a way of meeting the legal services needs of many poor individuals. And in an era where LSC is at a high risk of losing support from the administration, pro bono legal services have become even more important. However, there is little empirical understanding of how large law firms and public interest organizations function together and how their institutional logics operate in the pro bono field. Drawing on 64 interviews with large firms and public interest organizations, this research finds that law firms and public interest organizations who are part of an organizational field, are collaborative in their goals of providing access to civil justice for the poor, but operate under different logics especially in relation to (1) matter selection; (2) time; and (3) hierarchy. This research shows how these different logics play out and how pro bono professionals may serve as translators to bridge these different logics.
This work in progress is part of a larger dissertation project. This paper empirically studies the field of pro bono by drawing on interview data to understand and contextualize the role of institutional logics in the organizational field that includes law firms and public interest organizations, as they seek to address access to civil justice for the poor. I also use findings from the 2017 Equal Justice Conference (EJC). The EJC is an annual gathering of law firm professionals involved with pro bono, public interest organization members, corporate counsel, judges, access to justice committees within states, funders and collaborators of the access to justice project, and state bar associations. The EJC is co-sponsored by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service and the National Legal Aid & Defender Association.
I interviewed the following individuals in large law firms: (1) Pro Bono Partners; (2) Pro Bono Counsel; and (3) Lawyer Pro Bono Managers; and (4) Non-Lawyer Pro Bono Managers who are not subordinate to other pro bono professionals within their firms. I focused my research on these groups of people – rather than including pro bono coordinators/managers who are subordinate to other pro bono professionals to gain an understanding of how institutional logics play out at the highest levels of the role of law firm pro bono professionals.
I also interviewed the following individuals in public interest organizations: (1) Executive Directors/Other Director Positions; and/or (2) Pro Bono Managers/Directors/Coordinators. The latter group are individuals who are solely or partly responsible for managing public interest organizations’ pro bono programs. The public interest organizations in this research are varied and include: organizations that are funded in part by the legal services corporation, those that are funded only by private foundations and donors, those that are funded by federal, state and private contributions, those that focus exclusively on litigation practice, and those that provide transaction assistance to individuals and nonprofit organizations.
The large law firms and public interest organizations in these preliminary findings are geographically varied and represent all 4 regions of the United States – Northeast, West, Midwest and South. They are in Illinois, New York, California, Washington State, Virginia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Virginia, Texas and Washington D.C. Interviews were conducted face-to-face and followed a semi-structured format, involving a list of questions loosely structured around a set of core topics. While every interview touched on questions from within each topic area, the questions did not always progress in the same order allowing respondents to direct the discussion based on the topics they found to be most important, while allowing me to probe for details on particular responses (See Berg 2001). Interviews lasted between 1 hour and 2 hours.
 Seven of the interviews will be conducting via video conferencing using BlueJeans. BlueJeans delivers interactive, two-way video that is secure and supported on any device. I used Bluejeans because interviewees were either in smaller cities within a state, or were unavailable for in-person interviews.