Funding the Cause: How Public Interest Law Organizations Fund Their Activities and Why It Matters for Social Change


  • Catherine R. Albiston,

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    • Catherine R. Albiston is Professor of Law and Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. She received her BA (Psychology) and MA (Sociology) from Stanford University and her JD and PhD (Jurisprudence and Social Policy) from the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on the relationship between law and social change, especially how social institutions interact with law to affect broader systems of power and inequality.
  • Laura Beth Nielsen

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    • Laura Beth Nielsen is a Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation and Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Legal Studies at Northwestern University. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley's Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program (PhD 1999) and Boalt Hall School of Law (JD 1996).

  • Many thanks to Kenneth Bamberger, Stephen Bundy, Anne Joseph O'Connell, Taeku Lee, Erin Murphy, Robert Nelson, Jeff Selbin, Eleanor Swift, and Molly van Houweling for their helpful comments and suggestions. Thank you also to Mark Leinauer for his invaluable research assistance on this article. The first author thanks the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University for fellowship support while she completed this article.


Most of the work of public interest law organizations does not make money. How do these organizations survive, given the economic realities of law practice? Drawing on survey data from a national random sample of public interest law firms, we investigate how funding models vary across public interest organizations and how funding sources affect these organizations’ activities. We find funding structures have, over time, shifted away from foundation support toward government grants. Compared to other organizations, however, conservative organizations draw significantly less of their budget from federal and state grants, and significantly more of their budget from private contributions. Conservative organizations are significantly less likely than other organizations to rely on funding that prohibits engaging in class actions, receiving attorney's fees, or lobbying. Respondents reported that funding restrictions hamper their ability to negotiate favorable settlements, bring about systemic change, and represent vulnerable client communities. We close with a comparative institutional analysis of different funding models.