This Article empirically examines how litigation shapes the substantive agenda of a social movement. Critical scholars have argued that movement lawyers, as professionals and elites, tend to substitute their own priorities for those of their clients. Yet lawyers and litigation can also influence a movement's agenda through subtle, organizational dynamics rather than through the volitional, ethical choices made by movement lawyers. This Article reexamines critiques of civil rights lawyering through a case study of the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender ("LGBT") rights. This case study draws on quantitative and qualitative analyses of original data from more than two decades of LGBT movement history. These analyses reveal that litigation garnered more news media coverage than other tactics and that the LGBT movement organizations that used litigation had a greater likelihood of survival than organizations that did not. These benefits made litigation the most visible and established of all the LGBT movement's tactics. In addition, LGBT protest organizations responded to the legal issues projected in the mainstream media to form their agendas, subtly redirecting those protest organizations away from their original priorities and toward legal goals. This Article makes a novel contribution to existing scholarship by exposing systemic processes that may privilege movement litigation relative to protest, elevating the issues being litigated to top movement priorities. Significant implications follow for theories of law and social change. The dominance of legal issues on the LGBT movement's agenda marginalized movement demands for cultural transformation or structural change in favor of assimilationist goals, such as the right to marry, that translate well into formal legal claims. Understanding the dynamics revealed here, which allow litigation to set a social movement's agenda, will help civil rights lawyers in the LGBT movement and beyond to provide more effective representation and to achieve more far-reaching social change.
The sociological and socio-legal literatures on social movements have identified three main types of ''legal framing'' in contemporary social movement discourse: collective rights framing, individual rights framing, and nationalistic legal framing. However, it is unclear from the current research how movement actors decide which of these framing strategies to use, under what circumstances, and to what effect. In this article, I offer a model for future empirical research on legal framing, which (1) distinguishes legal framing by its argumentative structure, ideological content, and remedy; and (2) analyzes how a social movement's internal culture and institutional environment constrain the symbolic utility of particular legal frames and shape the movement's legal framing strategy. I argue that the alternative approach offered here will help theorize how social movements strike a balance between the institutional pressure to reproduce dominant ideologies and the internal pressure to reform those ideologies. This perspective thus helps build socio-legal theory on the relationship between legal framing and social subordination, and on the conditions under which movements will be able to inflect legal language with insurgent social movement values.
This review examines the complex interplay among social movements, organizations, and law. Although the sociological literature has recently been attentive to each pair of two of these social arenas"that is, to social movements and organizations, to organizations and law, and to law and social movements"there has been no effort to theorize the relationship among all three of them. We review the literature on each pair of institutions and then suggest ways in which insights about the omitted institution might inform extant work. Finally, we offer a new framework for examining social movements, organizations, and law together. Envisioning the three social arenas as overlapping and mutually constitutive social fields, we suggest that institutional change may occur when exogenous shocks produce contention and settlement in adjacent fields or when endogenous motion occurs as ideas within one field gradually influence practices in adjacent fields.