Ethics and the History of Social Movement Lawyering

In his article, Scott Cummings proposes that there existed an “old canon” concerning how to be a lawyer for progressive social justice causes, which has been replaced by a different “new canon” that envisions the role of movement lawyers quite differently. According to Cummings, old canon lawyering places courts “at the heart of the canonical stories.” New canon lawyering, on the other hand, involves using legal institutions other than courts and focuses on the intersection between law and politics. Cummings gives examples of the old and new ways of lawyering and also draws conclusions about what causes the momentum of social movements to slow. One of Cummings’ central arguments is that the critique of what he calls old canon lawyering is in many respects misplaced.

I wholeheartedly agree with Cummings’ thesis that much of the critique of the “old” way of engaging in social movement lawyering is misplaced; here I offer some additional or alternative reasons why. To sum up my argument, I do not believe there is much of a difference between old versus new perspectives on the range of appropriate strategies for social movement lawyering. Historically as today, social movement lawyers understood that sometimes courts are useful but sometimes they are not. Looking in the long view, so-called “old canon” lawyers have understood this just as “new canon” lawyers do. Instead, the most significant difference between the lawyering styles Cummings labels “old” versus “new” canon involves lawyers’ heightened sensitivity to the ethical problems that arise in social movement lawyering. I briefly develop these arguments below.