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Law As Social Work

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Washington University Journal of Law & Policy


In our work as lawyers for low income clients and as clinical teachers, we are sometimes told by our professional counterparts in private practice—especially those who work in large corporate firms—that what we do “isn’t law, it’s social work.” Similarly, our students sometimes complain that the work they do on behalf of low income clients “isn’t law, it’s social work.”

In the past we have tended to respond to this “social worker” charge defensively. We insisted that what we and our students do is “law,” that it is really no different from what private practitioners do for their paying clients, and that in many ways it is even more legally complex and sophisticated than much of what private lawyers do.

While this response is superficially true, on a deeper level it tends to obscure an important dimension of our work as both lawyers and clinical teachers. Our work does have an important social function. At its best, law is more than a business or trade by which lawyers use their education, training, professional license to earn a comfortable living by pursuing and protecting the personal—and typically, economic—interests of the clients who retain them, whoever those clients might be.

We have come to realize that our defensive response to the accusation that what we do is social work is the wrong response. What we should be saying is: “You’re right. What we do is social work, and that is why it is so challenging and so important.” As poor people’s lawyers and as clinical teachers we should embrace and celebrate the truth of the claim that what we do is indeed social work.

Of course, simply saying that our practice of law is, or ought to be, “social work,” is something of a play on words. There are significant differences in the professional education, training, expertise, practice, and professional ethics of lawyers and social workers. While we do not wish to ignore or minimize these differences, we do want to argue that there is much in social work education, ethics, and practice that can and should be adopted by lawyers. These qualities are especially important for those who represent, and those who teach others to represent, both low income and disadvantaged clients.