Race, Class, and Legal Ethics in the Early Naacp (1910-1920)

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The history of the NAACP is key to American conceptions of how to achieve social change through law. Yet despite the vast literature on the NAACP, no one has explored how the early NAACP navigated traditional legal ethics strictures in developing its innovative test case litigation strategies. In this Article, Prof. Carle examines that question, focusing on the activities of the elite white New York City practitioners who dominated the NAACP's first national legal committee between 1910 and 1920. Prof. Carle shows that this committee was experimenting with litigation strategies that included soliciting clients, advertising legal services to strangers, and staging facts for test cases. At the same time, legal committee members were involved in local bar associations that were enforcing legal ethics prohibitions against solicitation, advertising, and "stirring up" litigation. Prof. Carle explores the world view that allowed these lawyers to champion the NAACP's innovative legal work while simultaneously supporting the bar's traditional legal ethics views. She argues that the committee members' universalist understanding of the public good allowed them to endorse the NAACP's use of innovative litigation techniques while sitting on bar committees that penalized other practitioners for similar conduct, and that their professional and social privilege gave them such freedom to maneuver around inconvenient legal ethics norms in experimenting with new forms of public interest practice.