Law on Trial: The End(s) of the Legal Academy

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

Law on TrialThe School of Law’s Law on Trial 2015 came to a close on Friday 19 June with an exploration of the Legal Academy – or rather what its role is at a time when its ends and purport are increasingly being put under the microscope.

Organised by Prof Peter Fitzpatrick, the workshop featured presentations from a trio of legal academics – and each responded to by thoughts from a further three discussants.

From the high pressured environments of the legal professional, to the complexities of ‘legitimised’ violence, to an examination of the pre- and post-war structures of the university, the afternoon event offered plenty food for thought for the gathered audience of legal academics, professionals and students.

Wellbeing in the Legal Profession

The trio of presentations was begun by Prof Richard Collier of Newcastle University who discussed his recent paper – and ongoing research – in the area of Wellbeing in the Legal Profession. During the course of his talk, Prof Collier argued that not only is there considerable evidence that interest in wellbeing in the legal profession is growing; there are multiple strands to it, including:

  • The study of wellbeing in the profession – recent articles in this area have looked at the hyper-competitive environment and the implications on social connectedness and subjective wellbeing of the lawyer
  • The impact of legal training and education programmes on wellbeing – with ever-growing pressures being put on students being reflected in an increasing uptake of on-campus wellbeing and counselling services
  • The proliferation of wellbeing programmes being run in law firms, which underlines a growing recognition of poor wellbeing in the legal profession, and the desire to tackle it

Prof Collier then critiqued these emergent areas of study, and highlighted the discourses arising from them. Among them, he noted an ‘individualised discourse’, in which attention is directed away from wider structural, political and economic forces i.e. wellbeing as a personal, not a political issue.

A further over-arching theme was the commodification of wellbeing, and how it is considered by many to be another artefact of the neoliberalist world – where ‘wellness’ is considered important primarily because it is a vital part of the profitability of the law firm.

Future research, he concluded, could examine how normalised the hyper-competitiveness/wellbeing situation is, and to what extent the legal profession is now a field only survivable by an elite class who can successfully self-manage its pressures.

In her response to Prof Collier’s presentation, Prof Fiona Macmillan questioned a university’s complicity in laying the ground work for, and perpetuating, the high-pressured environments of the legal profession.

The Law School and the Force of Law

Next up was a presentation by Birkbeck’s Prof Patricia Tuitt, executive dean of the School of Law. The relationship between law and violence, she explained, has underpinned much of her work.

Reflecting this field of interest, Prof Tuitt presented her thoughts and findings as outlined in her recent paper, which explores:

  • Walter Benjamin’s 1921 essay, Critique of Violence, in which the German philosopher contemplates the seeming paradox of an exercise of a legal right being construed as an act of violence – subject, potentially, to the emergency jurisdiction of the state.

And its applicability to a 21st Century incident:

  • In which an American law school dean recently wrote to her students, urging them to take part in protests in Baltimore – even offering to defer an exam for those who help people on the street with legal advice (read the Washington Post article)

Examining this incident within the boundaries of Benjamin’s proposition on sanctioned vs unsanctioned violence, Prof Tuitt noted that the dean’s actions could have been construed as an extortionate use of legal rights. However, she also noted that Benjamin’s Critique doesn’t adequately address the 21st Century legal system, such as the impact of human rights principles.

In his response to Prof Tuitt’s presentation, Dr Eddie Bruce-Jones, continued the conversation on the matters of the distinction between the academy and the legal system; what this might mean for the end of the legal academy; and asked whether – given the topics under analysis – the State needs the University to stay alive, or whether it merely keeps the University barely alive for its own legitimacy.

The Structure of a University

Closing the presentations for the afternoon, Birkbeck’s Soo Tian Lee examined the historical structure of a university from the perspectives of:

  • Instrumentalism
  • Idealism
  • The University-in-itself
  • Forms of life

In discussing each structure, Soo Tian examined the contexts of the university during the post-war consensus era, and the rise of the neoliberalist university in which it has become “subordinated to narrow economic goals”.

Instrumentalism and idealism are often seen as opposed, Soo Tian explained. However, he finds this to be “a false dichotomy”, and instead proposed “a relational structure” in which both instrumentalist and idealist principles co-exist. Also within this relational structure are what he described as ‘Forms of life’ – i.e. the individual habits of an institution which, though not always easy to identity, exist nontheless.

In summation, Soo Tian offered what he considered “an uncomfortable conclusion”, in that the objective of such a study such as his, can only be to lay out the proposed structure of the post-war educational institution and let it be discussed.

If an overly neat or definitive conclusion is found, he explained, “it should be killed immediately”. “Unflinching rightness is to be approached with caution”, he concluded.

Soo tian’s presentation was responded to by discussant Dr Matthew Charles, of the University of Westminster. Dr Charles spoke of the university as a special kind of community, and examined it within the context – and limitations – of Kantian theory on antinomy.

The workshop’s final half hour comprised an open Q&A opportunity between the panellists and audience members.

Find out more

Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *