In a piece originally published in Socialist Lawyer, Kate Bradley reviews the Critical Legal Pocketbook. Bradley finds a useful corrective to capitalist legal education, perfect for socialists who study and work in law.
Wall, Illan rua, Frey Middleton, Sahar Shah, and CLAW, eds. The Critical Legal Pocketbook. (Oxford: Counterpress. 2021) 284pp, £15.
There are many reasons why socialists may be attracted to the legal profession. Though it is an embattled terrain dominated by upholders of ruling class values and systems, the law also offers a set of tools for fighting back, and tangible wins that can distract temporarily from the difficulties of a left at low tide. Despite the work of successive neoliberal governments to cut it to shreds, a significant portion of civil law is still dedicated to defending the hard-won legal rights of tenants, workers, debtors, benefits claimants, migrants, homeless people, children in care and many other groups facing disempowerment at the hands of powerful others.
I share many socialists’ concerns about the law: that it can individualise and re-entrench people’s problems, prevent them from fighting back for themselves. But in a system that throws up legal barriers all over the place when people try to resist, it seemed as good a life’s work as any to help tear those barriers down.
The first battle in the war a socialist lawyer will inevitably end up fighting with the legal system is on a Law degree. Once they’ve found the money to pay the fees or living costs while they study – some students with more difficulty than others – they will arrive to see a host of topics on the syllabus that bear little relation to the subjects they’re interested in. This is especially true of the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), the distilled and shortened version of a conventional Law degree. The course focuses on topics like Contract Law, Land Law, Equity and Trusts; nothing concrete on housing, immigration, employment, welfare, debt. There are moments when course content hints at the real-world struggles students might one day be engaged in – employers’ liability for accidents at work, for example, or squatters’ rights in Land Law. But overall, there’s little justice to be found in the case law a Law student must read, or the way we are taught to read it. Critical thinking about the role of law in society is barely touched upon during the GDL, and cases are studied free of their historical context, particularly jarring for anyone who wants to understand the historical processes that create and change the laws that govern us.
I soon found myself parched, desperate for a different kind of education. This was when I was recommended The Critical Legal Pocketbook. Despite its slightly chaotic and eclectic editing and selection of essays, the collection was a breath of fresh air. In fact, its slight vibe of chaos was just what I needed after months of legal logic’s drab orderliness (orderliness that hides, in its austere certainty, the intense turmoil of the world outside the courtroom).
Even the Table of Contents was a delight on first sight. ‘On What Passes For Legal Theory’ and ‘How to Run an Empire (Lawfully)’ were two initial favourites, promising searing critique, humour and the kinds of analysis the course wasn’t offering. There was ‘The Biopolitics of Environmental Law’, ‘Trusts and Kleptocracy’, and the simple but promising ‘Money’, as well as short chapters introducing social reproduction theory, the state, ideology and other core concepts a student should be using to think critically about law. With 40 chapters of varying lengths by a diverse range of authors, the book loosely maps onto the topics of UK Law courses, but enriches them by providing critical perspectives entirely absent from official course content. As the Introduction outlines, the editors have taken a wide approach to what’s ‘critical’, bringing together intersectional feminists, Marxists, ecosocialists and others, aiming to showcase the range of critical thinking that’s possible in law, rather than pick one coherent strand or framing narrative. Having said that, this collection contains no postmodernist scattiness, ‘critical theory’ as an excuse for evading commitment; every author in this book seems dedicated to making a better world.
Particularly strong chapters for me included Máiréad Enright’s ‘Contract Law and Empire’, which uses stark examples to show how judges can administer the most inhuman verdicts in the name of the rule of law and natural justice; Sahar Shah’s ‘Unreasonable Expectations’, which deals in beautiful, cutting prose with the way Law textbooks tell and reproduce stories of the white bourgeois rights-bearing man; and Colin Murray’s ‘The Radical Fringes of Tort Law’, which explores how the law of “torts” – civil wrongs – can be used to challenge sexual violence and state crimes where criminal courts or official policy have failed us.
I couldn’t have found this book at a better time: just when I was considering dropping off the Graduate Diploma in Law, when the barriers to becoming a lawyer, financial and psychological, felt too overwhelming to continue. I’m glad to say, Stephen Connolly’s insight gave me the rallying cry I needed:
The deviant student is just that one who questions the non-fit of their own way of thinking about the world with the pre-set ‘common sense’ to which all law students are expected to accede.
If questioning my own ‘non-fit’ is allowed, and others have done it before me, then I’m happy to continue as a ‘deviant student’. This book was a glass of water in a very long, dry academic year.
If you know a leftie that’s doing a Law degree, buy them The Critical Legal Pocketbook for their next birthday. It’ll cheer them up.