This post continues our series featuring efforts to organize LPE student groups at several law schools. You can read the rest of the posts here.
Our introduction to Law & Political Economy came during the February 2019 Rebellious Lawyering Conference (“RebLaw”) at Yale Law School. The Miami Law chapter of the National Lawyers Guild sent six students to the conference, and three of those students attended the “Building the FedSoc of the Left” event organized by students from both Yale Law School and Harvard Law School. When those students returned to Miami Law, they reached out to other progressive Miami Law students and student organizations about these early efforts to organize the LPE Student Network, and other students got involved. Since then, students from Miami Law have been involved in the cross-campus organizing along with fellow students from Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, and University of Pennsylvania.
At Miami, we were particularly interested in adding LPE and critical legal theory courses to the curricular offerings at our school. Miami Law provides some institutional support for public interest—such as a center that connects students with pro bono opportunities, provides public interest scholarships and summer stipends, and oversees a student-run board to manage on-campus programing and fundraise for summer internship programs. But these public interest offerings do not create space for a more critical reflection on the law.
And in the classroom, it can be difficult for students, especially first year students, to find critical approaches to the law. First year students are allowed to take one elective course in their spring semester (only one of which can be explicitly considered a “social justice” elective); furthermore, the main 1L courses lack critical approaches. This dynamic leads to second-year public interest law students stretched beyond their means, doing anything and everything public interest and social justice they can get their hands on because they have not had that opportunity during their first year. Beyond this, the availability of courses that teach or engage with critical legal scholarship depends on what professors choose to teach. There are no courses devoted to critical legal approaches to the law. Thus, one goal of our LPE group is to demonstrate student interest in curriculum that engages with LPE and critical legal theories, in order to push the school to ensure that more of those courses are available and that existing courses incorporate critical approaches to a greater degree.
At Miami Law, our efforts have focused largely on curricular reform. We have started the “Alternative Legal Theories Reading Group” that is open to students from every year and meets twice a month. We’ve tried to pick readings that introduce students to LPE and critical legal theory via the substantive legal areas they are taught in their first year (i.e. Torts, Property, and so on). Our reading group has been successful enough to catch the attention of faculty and administrators at the school—including the faculty curriculum committee (the group of faculty at Miami who approve courses and syllabi). One reason we stand out on campus is because, at Miami Law, students do not get course credit for participating in reading groups—it is an entirely extra-curricular activity. Furthermore, we have a large number of 1Ls participating, which is particularly surprising given that they are pushed so heavily to focus only on their classes. We believe the high level of student excitement—despite no academic rewards—provides a strong signal that the course offerings aren’t enabling sufficient exposure to what students are interested to learn.
These efforts have paid off: we recently learned that the school will offer an upper-level LPE seminar for this coming spring semester. While we were not able to cement a 1L LPE elective this year, one of our deans has started to actively support our efforts and we believe it is very much a possibility for the near future. Additionally, students in our reading group have been inspired to approach their professors to discuss the lack of critical legal approaches in their classes.
We have a number of professors at this school whose academic work falls under the critical race theory or critical legal theory umbrellas, as well as faculty who have identified their past work as LPE or who are working on forthcoming LPE scholarship. These include civil procedure professors, criminal law professors, constitutional law professors, and torts professors. Because we already have faculty with expertise in these areas, we hope that we will be successful in pushing for more courses that explicitly incorporate these approaches to the law.
And as part of our work with the LPE Student Network, we have furthermore taken charge of coordinating the collection and distribution of LPE syllabi, for courses, reading groups, and seminars, from various campuses to share with the student network. We hope the syllabi will assist students at other schools in starting their own reading groups and advocating for curriculum change.
Progressive students at Miami Law have been very eager to learn about LPE and be involved in the reading group. The reading group has helped push the conversation among self-identified progressive students in a more critical direction. While we recognize that most of the students at Miami Law are likely uninterested in critical approaches to learning the law and to careers in public interest, we believe many students are simply not yet aware that there are alternative approaches to understanding and to practicing the law. Thus, one reason we have focused on the 1L curriculum specifically is to expose students who don’t identify as progressive or who are not yet interested in social justice to LPE.
We think it’s a great disservice for law schools to graduate students who have not learned to grapple with the Anglo-American legal tradition’s history of subordination and oppression of race, class, and gender. For now, our reading group ensures that students who are interested in these ideas are being given the tools to critique the false division between public goods and private markets, and to raise their criticisms in the classroom.