Expert Opinion: Public Interest Leadership Development Part Deux

[Ed. Note: last week we posted the first of three parts in our series on leadership-skills development for public-interest minded law students and junior attorneys.  Today’s post, from former Equal Justice Works Fellow Emily Benfer, is the second.  It builds off of the propositions that the most successful public interest leaders are driven by fundamental commitments to the ends they seek to achieve, and draw from more arrows in their quivers than trial advocacy and other traditional lawyering skills which are emphasized in law school.]

Emily A. Benfer is a public interest attorney in Washington, D.C., where she is currently co-teaching a course on  Advocacy Tools for the 21st Century Public Interest Lawyer at Georgetown Law Center.  She first employed advocacy strategies as an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, and next year she will become the Director of a new Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.

The world of public interest law values creativity, collaboration and scrappiness – the courage to take calculated risks and engage in the kind of “out-of-the-box” thinking needed to reshape our communities.  Public interest lawyers learn early on in their legal careers that legal prowess is only one of the many skills necessary to becoming an effective advocate for clients and causes. Our success is equally dependent on whether we access a full range of advocacy strategies that are critical to meeting client needs and creating measurable social change. The only problem is that most of us don’t learn these strategies in law school. It is my hope that these five tips will provide you with the framework to get started.

 1. Know your motivation.

Critical to long-term success – and fending off burnout – is an understanding of the internal factor that drives you toward social change. Your touchstone is your motivation. It’s the driving force behind everything; it’s the piece you can always count on. In essence, it’s how a public interest lawyer is created. Ask yourself what your motivation is. What makes you want to pound the table? Now, step back and ask yourself why? Is it innate – the way you’ve always been? Is it woven into your emotional, spiritual or intellectual core? Was there a process that committed you to cause change? Or was there a defining moment? Hold onto your answers. Public interest lawyers don’t have to be optimists but they do have to believe change is possible. Knowing your motivation will help you to do just that.

2. Identify What Victory Looks Like

Once you know your motivation, you can begin to envision the change you want to see in the world. What does victory look like? What is the clear and specific goal you want to achieve? Once you know, be sure to ask the safeguard questions: Is this goal the best outcome for the group you are serving? Is it achievable? Do you need to cause incremental change by achieving multiple smaller goals to achieve the end goal?  Once you’ve identified victory, you can begin to translate it into the steps you will layer on top of your motivation to launch you towards success.

3. Complete a Stakeholder Analysis

A successful advocacy strategy must be grounded in the needs of key stakeholders. Take a “listening tour” in order to truly understand the dynamics of the problem and the reasons behind any direct interests. You will begin to identify all of the individuals and entities that will be affected – both positively and negatively – if you are successful. This will help you to identify potential collaborators and troubleshoot with regard to opponents (for example, you may be able to predict and prepare for oppositional actions or you may decide to shift your goal slightly in order to encompass additional stakeholders, thereby turning initial adversaries into supporters of your campaign.)

4. Gather Your Advocacy Tools

What range of strategies are you going to employ to achieve your goals? Think through what will be the right combination of advocacy tools necessary to move towards your advocacy goal, keeping in mind that an “everything but the kitchen sink” mentality may be more harmful than helpful. Advocacy tools allow you to approach the problem from every angle. They include grassroots mobilizing and organizing, client and group empowerment, working with the media, digital strategies, public policy advocacy, messaging, coalition building, to name a few. Take into account your own strengths and specific skill set and be aware of the resources that can fill in where you might need assistance. Remember that uncharted territory is part of public interest lawyering: get used to the fact that there won’t always be a blueprint and move forward.  There is no one, single right path to your goal – the plan doesn’t have to be perfect to act – but there is a point where you have to jump in knowing you can change course later. Just be sure whatever plan you decide to implement links back to your motivation and guiding philosophy. That check will ensure you’re keeping your eyes on the prize of what you’re working towards.

5. Struggle Together

You are not building change in isolation. You are connected to all the people who came before you and those who will pick up the cause after you are gone. We know that law is a means and not an end and that lawyers play a small but critical piece in the quest for social justice. Join forces with others. Identify the people, groups, organizations, etc. that you will you need in order to achieve your goal. Connect with the other players and disciplines – the organizers, the media, the teachers, the doctors, the social workers, the lobbyists, the individuals and coalitions – that are so pivotal to causing social change. I promise, struggling together will always be easier and more effective than going it alone.


You don’t need to be an expert in these advocacy strategies, but you should be able to recognize the “advocacy gaps” in your work, identify the specific tools needed to fill them, and understand how to leverage the relationships, resources and funding necessary to achieve your goals and do your job better. I have seen lawyers achieve remarkable, sometimes even miraculous, results when they are able to combine the practice of law with multiple, well-coordinated advocacy strategies. There is no reason why you won’t do the same. So, go ahead, dream big and get ready to work miracles!

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