LPE Student Organizing at YLS

Over the past year, student organizing has become an important part of the Law and Political Economy Project. This week we’re highlighting the work of several LPE student chapters. We hope that by amplifying their work—the impetus behind the student network, the successes and challenges of different chapters, and the community that students are building around LPE—we can reach more students at more law schools. So professors, if you’re reading this, let your students know that there’s a student network eager to include them, and law students, we’re excited to meet you! 

If you’re interested in starting a chapter or doing LPE work at your law school, you can start by 

  1. signing up for our list serve to get connected to the network and get help launching your chapter,
  2. checking out our syllabi,
  3. reading our 1LPE series on LPE approaches to 1L courses

We’re starting the series with the Yale Law School chapter: 

Isabel Echarte — 

Screen Shot 2019-10-28 at 2.34.10 PMThe LPE student group at Yale Law School sprung from the same root as the broader LPE Project. In 2016, a group of students asked Amy Kapczynski to teach a seminar that would allow them to better understand the social, political, and legal structures that have led our society to the various crises it faces and that facilitated President Trump’s election. To build this first seminar, students pulled in scholarship from existing traditions like ClassCrits, Critical Race Theory, and APPEAL to locate the law’s role in our current political economic structure, as well as to understand how the law might be used to facilitate the work of movements seeking to build a better one.

This seminar gave rise to LPE Blog. The students wanted to continue the conversations they’d had in class and to bridge methodological and geographic divides by providing a space for legal scholars to engage each other on the central LPE questions. As the blog became more and more successful at facilitating academic conversations, and as demand for the LPE seminar grew to nearly 100 students (a sizeable share of the law school), students recognized the need for space outside of the blog and seminar. In particular, we were interested in expanding beyond academia to make LPE approaches relevant and accessible to students who want to practice law and to build networks with alumni and practitioners as well as students at other campuses. We are also interested in curriculum reform—in particular, unseating the dominance of Law and Economics in legal pedagogy and to provide a more robust and critical account of the role of racialized subordination and the patriarchy.

In general, law school can be an isolating experience for leftists – in law school spaces, even beyond our classes, the conversation is narrowly focused on by assumptions about what law should do and how it best serves the public good. I often encountered law and economics, which framed the market as neutral and natural, and privileged money and profit as the measures of socially good outcomes. In this framing, the pursuit of social justice is reduced to “growing the overall pie,” without regard for how it is distributed. And even in the few classes where questions of gendered and racial subordination were acknowledged, discussion remained limited to narrow, neoliberal visions of feminism and anti-racism with “justice” limited to a negative rights framing. In many ways, these limitations on debate parallel the politics of the last few decades more broadly. In the words of Jedediah Purdy, “[n]eoliberalism is not so much an intellectual position as a condition in which one acts as if certain premises were true, and others unspeakable. It’s not doctrine but a limit on the vitality of practical imagination.”

I was surprised to find such a narrow orientation in law school. Even though the law has played a central role in structuring today’s political economic reality, law professors often do not recognize or admit that role. Our political economy conditions the issues we focus on in class and clinic, and yet professors often act (for arguments’ sake or out of belief) as if it is an exogenous factor out of our control. Concealing the law’s role and function, as well as taking certain premises as true, not only limits our analyses but it also leads us to perhaps unknowingly participate in the reproduction of a system the outcomes of which we find undesirable.

Through our student group, we have created space for students to challenge the dominant analytical approaches while building community. Since we officially became a student group last spring, our list serve has grown to over 200 students (around one-third of the law school). We have hosted a number of lunch talks with between 20 and 50 students in attendance (once, more than 100!)—on topics including legal education and the reproduction of hierarchy with Monica Bell and Shamus Khan, the black radical tradition with Aziz Rana, the history of neoliberalism with Quinn Slobodian, and student activism in New Haven. We have also hosted informal workshops for student scholarship. This semester, we have planned a series called “Left Tea” where we discuss a news article or podcast over tea and snacks. The student group has also begun a mentorship program to help 1Ls figure out which classes and clinics to take and offer support during the job application process. Lastly, we are planning to host LPE-affiliated students from various schools to further build out the LPE Student Network in the spring 2020 semester (more on that to come!).

The group has also sought to make LPE relevant to students’ interests outside of legal academia. Because most students are not pursuing academic careers, and because the discussions within LPE are very relevant to the practice of the law, we host events with practitioners and activists. We additionally work together to find jobs and internships that might be relevant to LPE theories of change—often, those that are in solidarity with social movements—as we recognize that many elite public interest jobs do not necessarily promote structural or meaningful change.

The LPE student group has been a place where I can practice envisioning a better world and work through how I might use my legal education to make that a reality. I say “practice” because for much of my education I was taught to limit my efforts pursuing social justice to within the confines of what today’s politics and market economy might allow. But I soon learned that, as John Whitlow has articulated on this blog, “[i]n moments of profound flux, the conditions of possibility of both knowledge and practice change. Limits that were only recently taken for granted become unstable and stretched . . . there is an alternative to the status quo, and it is acceptable, in fact necessary, to talk about it openly.” This more hopeful approach was key to helping me cope as a 1L with how antagonistic the law has often been for social movements, redistributive efforts, and promoting human rights and human flourishing. As social movements throughout this country increasingly take advantage of the fact that this time is so open to left politics (or, perhaps, as they make this time so open to left politics), the LPE student group seeks to involve students in building alternatives to the status quo and working towards a more just and equal society.

Isabel Echarte is a 2L at Yale Law School.