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Get to Know Michael Kirkpatrick

By Hadley Christman

Georgetown Law School Fall 2014 Campus Photography

Born and raised in Texas, Michael Kirkpatrick graduated from Texas Christian University before attending American University Law School.

From 1991 to 1995, after graduating law , he was a staff attorney with the Farm Worker Division of Texas Rural Legal Aid, where he litigated employment and civil rights cases on behalf of migrant, transnational and contingent workers, negotiated labor agreements for striking workers and counseled farm worker unions and community organizations.

From 1995 to 2004, Kirkpatrick worked as senior trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, where he litigated employment discrimination cases against state and local government employers and defended the constitutionality of federal affirmative action programs.

In 2014, Kirkpatrick left Public Citizen to work as a full-time visiting professor at Georgetown Law School and director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the Institute for Public Representation. He returned to Public Citizen in August 2016.

One of the longest-serving attorneys within Public Citizen, Kirkpatrick litigates public interest cases at all levels of the federal and state judiciaries, including the U.S. Supreme Court. His practice areas include constitutional law, civil rights, class actions, administrative law and open government.

Kirkpatrick received the Peter M. Cicchino Award for Outstanding Advocacy in the Public Interest, and is a seven-time recipient of the Department of Justice Special Achievement Award. He has been a Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow at Harvard Law School, the Law and Policy Mentor for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and a Government Fellow for the American Bar Association’s Section of Labor and Employment Law. Kirkpatrick is a frequent speaker on civil rights, legal ethics and public interest lawyering.

Please tell us your role at Public Citizen.

I’m a lawyer in the Litigation Group. Our practice is dedicated to impact litigation. We pick cases with an eye toward using litigation as a strategy to advance our progressive ideology and to create precedents that promote social change.

What is a typical day like for you?

A typical day involves legal research and writing to prepare motions and briefs to be filed in court. I spend part of each day exchanging emails and phone calls with lawyers from outside Public Citizen who want to strategize about their cases, or are seeking our assistance with regard to particularly challenging issues. In addition, I often field legal questions from my colleagues at Public Citizen.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

Our opponents are corporations and government agencies with financial resources that greatly exceed our own. We level the playing field through the quality of our legal work. It is always a challenge to pick cases that are likely to be resolved on the basis of legal issues as opposed to cases where the outcome may be driven by financial resources. We also tend to select cases that are likely to have the greatest impact relative to the resources required.

What brought you back to Public Citizen after your two year hiatus from the organization?

Leaving Public Citizen to become a full-time law professor was a difficult decision, but it was an opportunity I wanted to explore. Having had the opportunity, I realized that I prefer litigating cases at Public Citizen to being a law professor.

Why do you choose to be a lawyer at Public Citizen, especially considering that there is so much more money in the private sector?

I’m not motivated by money, and practicing law as a business has never appealed to me. The best thing about being a public interest lawyer is having the ability to pursue cases on principle — without regard to the economics. It has been a privilege to be a part of Public Citizen.

What does being an attorney at Public Citizen mean to you?

Public Citizen holds true to its principles, not only in the face of intense opposition from corporate interests, but also when, from time to time, we take a position contrary to that of our friends and allies. Taking principled positions is a hallmark of Public Citizen’s advocacy, and it is an honor to be associated with the organization.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I enjoy running, hiking and backpacking, and I’m a fan of the Washington Nationals, so I attend a lot of games during the baseball season. I also like to hear live music, and I like to cook.