Purvi Shah

Ashoka Fellow
Purvi Shah Headshot
Fellow since 2020

Purvi is building the field of Movement Lawyering so legal advocates can dramatically improve the lives of those who are most disadvantaged and support leading social justice movements in the US and around the world.

The core principle behind movement lawyering is that social movements create social change. From the labor and civil rights movements of the past, to the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements of the present, when the powerless band together against the powerful, social change happens.

This description of Purvi Shah's work was prepared when Purvi Shah was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2020.


Purvi is building the field of Movement Lawyering so legal advocates can dramatically improve the lives of those who are most disadvantaged and support leading social justice movements in the US and around the world.

The New Idea

Purvi is advancing an innovative approach to law entitled movement lawyering--which brings lawyers, activists, grassroots organizers, and ordinary people together to achieve systems change.

The core principle behind movement lawyering is that social movements create social change. From the labor and civil rights movements of the past, to the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements of the present, when the powerless band together against the powerful, social change happens.

This approach, unlocks the power of lawyers as agents of social change and social justice rather than preservers of existing power dynamics and the status quo. Thanks in large part to Purvi’s work and the organizations she has been engaged with in the past decade, there is a growing sector of lawyers in the U.S. and abroad who have honed and are spreading this cutting-edge, collaborative, and creative approach best descried as movement lawyering.

As Purvi puts it, history has shown us that law is neither objective nor neutral; law is not ethical or moral on its own. However, law when put in the hands of the most marginalized can be a great tool for social change and transformation. Therefore, movement lawyers use the same tactics as other lawyers - litigation, direct services, policy advocacy, and community legal education - but, as Purvi explains, their innovative approach stems from shifts in who they work with, what they do together, and how they work together.

In terms of the who, movement lawyers are primarily focused on partnering community led movements and directly provide legal representation to marginalized, oppressed, or underrepresented groups. They do this because they believe social change comes about when marginalized people organize around common grievances, wage strategic campaigns to demand change, and lead their own struggles against injustice.

In terms of the what, these lawyers focus on a unique strategy that aims to achieve systemic change. In doing so, they use a diverse set of tools in their legal practice and employ legal tactics only when they attain strategic objectives that could ultimately bring solutions that benefit the movement and not just one particular or isolated case. From class action litigation to drafting legislation to know-your-rights sessions to implementing alternatives to incarceration – these lawyers walk alongside communities and seek opportunities within and beyond the law to achieve strategic goals.

And in terms of how they work with others, movement lawyers see their community or movement allies as equal partners, not clients. Movement lawyers believe their role is that of a conscious strategist and transformative tactician – not an entitled savior. They walk alongside marginalized people seeking to transform the hardest conditions of their own lives.

Purvi saw that well-intentioned lawyers, existing legal advocacy organizations, and community groups alike were falling short of their tremendous potential. With movement lawyering, Purvi offers each a framework to organize around and address bigger problems more effectively. In this way she is helping make lawyers in movement spaces more effective and, over time, more abundant. In order to do this and to help her build the field of Movement Lawyering, Purvi launched The Movement Law Lab. Its mission is to develop new institutions, incubate new and better Movement Lawyering organizations and train a national and global network of Movement Lawyers, community lawyers and community organizers.

The Problem

This is a challenging moment in history. The persistent imbalances of power and the resulting inequity in our society are growing and gaining momentum. And while oppression is certainly nothing new, the scale and severity of the current crisis is staggering. This is a time where trained networks of lawyers who are strategically sharing information and working together on social justice cases that are understood as social movements is vitally important. In order to meet the demands of the current moment, the conscience of a much broader sector of the legal profession must be awakened. Thousands of lawyers must become compelled by questions of injustice and take strategic legal action.

While popular culture has advanced a myth of lawyers as the noble guardians of justice and equality, less than 3% of America’s 1.3 million lawyers work on issues of justice and poverty. Another study found that low-income people seek lawyers for only 20% of the civil legal problems they face and when they do, they are denied assistance 86% of the time. Millions of poor and marginalized Americans are enduring some of life’s hardest challenges —discrimination, eviction, violence, deportation, and exploitation — without any assistance from the legal profession.

Despite the power and potential of movement lawyering, this approach is not widely understood, taught or utilized. The legal profession is in crisis – a strategic and moral crisis - caused by failures in how lawyers are trained, acculturated, and incentivized to create social change. The crisis has resulted in serious shortcomings within the legal sector, namely a failure of vision, leadership, skillset and infrastructure.

There simply are not enough lawyers working to combat injustice and social disparities or focused on the imbalance of power. In addition, there is no cohesive network of lawyers that can quickly connect and be activated to respond to a social movement’s immediate crisis. The support that social movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and other groups of people working together to achieve shared social justice goals, receive from lawyers is often ad-hoc. And after lawyers’ volunteer for an immediate crisis, without a long-term commitment to social change and an ongoing network of peers they become disengaged and deactivated, leading community organizations and leaders to have to find lawyers all over again when the next crisis hits.

The Strategy

After years of working as a movement lawyer, as a law professor, and a builder of movement lawyering networks, Purvi decided to dedicated herself to building movement lawyering out as a formalized field, with standardized principles and practices, established curriculum and a host of legal organizations and lawyers formally adopting this method around the world. To support this vision, Purvi launched The Movement Law Lab (The Lab).

The vision of The Lab is to steward a new generation of dynamic, collaborative and versatile legal organizations and lawyers with the know-how and expertise to use the law to better serve social justice movements. Through The Movement Law Lab, Purvi is incubating and accelerating a crop of new movement lawyering organizations, transforming the model of existing legal organizations and creating an active national and international network of movement lawyers.

The Lab utilizes a range of field building strategies including:

1) Setting Norms & Standards: As an embryonic field, there is currently no clear definition of movement lawyering or a set of core principles, standards, norms, and/or metrics on movement lawyering. The Lab is filling this gap by gathering experts on movement lawyering to agree on basic definitions, a core set of principles, and to standardize language on movement lawyering.

2) Trainings: In her determination to open new avenues and opportunities that ultimately change the path for existing and new lawyers, Purvi has incorporated into The Lab a training arm. The Lab’s trainings are designed to help retrofit existing traditional legal institutions by providing consultation to Executive Directors and offering expertly tailored trainings for staff. The Lab also runs a trainers’ collective, develops core curriculum, publishes manuals, resources and self-study tools on movement lawyering.

3) Incubation: The Lab periodically hosts an incubator that provides intensive and targeted support to lawyers building creative new organizations or projects that connect law to social movement and systems-change. Teams chosen for the incubator receive coaching, access to a “genius bar” of advisors, coaches and experts; modest funding; and operations support to make their new venture sustainable.

4) Strategy Acceleration: Understanding how important innovation and creative spaces are for Movement Lawyers, Purvi launched “Brain Trusts” or strategy acceleration spaces, where small groups of lawyers can examine a particularly sticky problem free from organizational constrains and tactical silos. These spaces facilitate blue-sky thinking and creative collaboration. Brain Trusts are organized in partnership with community organizations seeking imaginative legal support for a campaign or by a lawyer/legal organization stumped by a complex obstacle in their justice work. With this, Movement Lawyers have a space to experiment, brainstorm, be creative and evolve.

5) Leadership Development: Purvi’s long experience with grassroots organizations and with Law for Black Lives made it clear that more lawyers with lived experiences in social movements are needed and that it’s critical to develop opportunities and pathways for lawyers who are POC and/or who belong to the communities directly impacted by the social movements. This is why part of the strategy of The Movement Law Lab is to develop new leaders by investing in leadership of diverse lawyers who come from the communities they work in. The Movement Law Lab is intentionally investing in legal visionaries coming from marginalized communities and is creating a pipeline for Black and Brown lawyers that will grow and shape the field for the next generations.

6) Networks: The Lab breaks down the silos between and isolation among movement lawyers and their institutions. The Lab brings together movement lawyers and allies on the national and international level to exchange strategies and approaches to movement lawyering and build a deeper understanding of how to win greater justice and human rights. Purvi also launched the first-ever Global Convening of Movement Lawyers, which brought together movement lawyers from 25 countries in March 2019 in Marrakech, Morocco. The convening offered a timely opportunity for movement lawyers across the globe to share in community, raise critical questions regarding the growth of the field, and offer a resounding mandate to launch the first-ever global network of Movement Lawyers.

7) Resource Generation: In order to truly build the field of movement lawyering, The Lab works strategically to educate and organize philanthropy to understand the qualitative difference between movement lawyering and other types of lawyering. It collaborates with partners in philanthropy and the field to develop creative strategies to move resources (human and financial) to movement lawyering organizations for their sustainability.

In the past decade, Purvi has worked with over 10,000 lawyers and community organizers working on movement lawyering efforts, and in the last year alone, more than 5,000 of them have been engaged with The Lab’s activities. Through The Movement Law Lab and her global efforts, Purvi is incubating and accelerating a crop of new movement lawyering organizations, transforming the model of existing legal organizations and creating an active national and international network of movement lawyers.

The Person

Purvi has been providing legal support to grassroots movements for more than ten years. Her track record in creating strategic lawyering efforts and organizations is profound and thorough.

She co-founded the Community Justice Project at Florida Legal Services where she litigated for six years on behalf of taxi drivers, tenant unions, public housing residents, and immigrants. She was also a law professor, serving as the founding Co-Director of the Community Lawyering Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law. She also worked as a community organizer with youth in Miami, students in India, and families of incarcerated youth in California.

Through this work, she understood that social movements conceived of and led by marginalized people are where lasting change is really created, rather than simply through litigation and the courts. Legal organizations need to work to support social movements rather than positioning themselves as leaders or higher authorities.

Purvi went on to be direct the first movement lawyering training institute in the U.S. based out of the Center for Constitutional Rights. In the aftermath of the Ferguson and Baltimore unrest arising from the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, Purvi formed The Ferguson and The Baltimore Legal Defense Committees. Soon, 140 cities across the country were protesting and the demand for knowledgeable and trained lawyers was increasing exponentially. To address this and create a national, organized strategy, Purvi co-founded Law for Black Lives, a national network of 3,400 legal advocates dedicated to supporting the movement for Black Lives with legal architecture in place in numerous cities.

As a daughter of immigrants who were active anchors in their community, Purvi was directly influenced by the power of community organizing from an early age. She and her family also personally experiencing the effects of racism and discrimination. Through all this, she saw her parents playing a key role in their community and welcoming new immigrants by providing basic support, like helping new arrivals navigate the U.S.’s particular health and education systems. This unique upbringing deeply influenced Purvi and her siblings. As adults they are all leaders in national social justice organizations, from the National Domestic Workers Assocation (led by Ashoka Fellow Ai-Jen Poo) to Planned Parenthood and Mercy Corps.