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This Essay contends that segments of public interest law often get a pass on questions of race because it is a field of law that is genuinely concerned with marginalized communities. But the historical record, the dearth of empirical data on race, the homogeneity of the legal profession, and the recognition that no one is necessarily immune from racial biases all demand that the public interest bar reckon with its racial character. The racial oversights of public interest law can manifest themselves in hiring, staffing, organizational mission, leadership, and the actual delivery of legal services. We argue that a racial accounting is particularly important for public interest organizations that are not explicitly organized around racial justice. Public interest lawyers are the presumed and actual allies of racial minorities, which could make detection of racial biases more elusive. Although counterintuitive, we maintain that actualizing an anti-racist society will be impossible without looking within the ranks and practices of attorneys who hold themselves out as racial allies.


Legal practice, public interest legal organizations, PILOs, racial bias, diversity, public defenders, poverty, pro bono, empirical studies

Publication Title

California Law Review Online

Publication Citation

12 Calif. L. Rev. Online (2021)