Lawyers as Quasi-Public Actors

W. Bradley Wendel, Cornell Law School


This paper was written for a panel on access to justice at the 100th anniversary conference of the Law Society of Alberta, Canada. In it I argue that the debate over access to justice, which in the United States generally means pro bono representation provided by individual lawyers, cannot be divorced from broader theoretical debates about the lawyer's role. My claim is that lawyers are quasi-public actors, in the sense that they have some responsibility to aim directly at justice in their representation of clients, and cannot rely only on indirect strategies to ensure that justice is served. The argument has a descriptive component, relying on the uneasy hybrid of direct and indirect strategies for serving justice that characterizes the American law governing lawyers. Assuming the accuracy of this description, the theoretical question is how one can argue from that description to a conclusion that legal ethics is fundamentally about some end, such as protecting client rights or individual autonomy. Relying on a Dworkin-style constructive interpretation, I conclude that it would be an unjustified distortion of the lawyer's role to impose requirements that lawyers ensure access to justice.