Vanderbilt Law Review

Article Title

Doing Good, Doing Well

First Page



On the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education,' it is fitting that we should take account not only of what has become of school desegregation but also of the heroic public interest lawyer figure embodied by Thurgood Marshall. For his role as "the chief litigator for the civil rights movement," Marshall is widely regarded as a preeminent role model for public interest lawyers. Descriptions of Marshall's career as a public interest advocate emphasize not only his ability to "use the legal system as a tool for social change," but also his personal sacrifice as a lawyer who persevered despite low pay. The Marshall image thus encompasses the dominant elements of the prevailing conception of the public interest lawyer: advocacy for social change and commitment to the cause rather than to income.

For his work as a civil rights litigator and especially for his success in Brown, Marshall is viewed as a shining example of a lawyer who used his legal skills to advance the public good. Indeed, in addition to the case's importance for school desegregation and equal protection, Brown holds a significant place in the history of the American legal profession as a symbol of litigation as a transformative force and as an inspiration to more than a generation of lawyers.

Given the power of the Marshall legacy, it is no surprise that many scholars and attorneys invoke his name to describe lawyers working to advance their vision of the public good. Beatrice Dohrn, legal director of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, has been called "the Thurgood Marshall or Ruth Bader Ginsburg for gay and lesbian civil rights." The American Bar Association's Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities annually honors "long-term contributions by other members of the legal profession to the advancement of civil rights, civil liberties, and human rights" with its Thurgood Marshall Award. And Jay Sekulow, a leading anti-abortion advocate, has been called "the Thurgood Marshall of our movement," demonstrating that Marshall's name is invoked for cause lawyering without regard to whether he would have supported a particular cause.