LPE Society at Berkeley Law

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.

Sarang Shah — 

Screen Shot 2019-10-28 at 2.34.10 PMBerkeley holds a unique place in the public imagination as the home of the Free Speech Movement and the People’s Park protests, as Earl Warren’s alma mater, and as a reliable beacon of Left Coast progressivism. Berkeley also stands uniquely situated in the Bay Area, where climate change-induced fires, rampant inequality and homelessness, and an unaccountable tech industry have emerged as harbingers of a future headed toward catastrophe.

While Berkeley Law students are proximate to these crises, they are also privileged to have access to tools that can be used to build an alternative, better future. Unfortunately, there is an overwhelming pressure built into the law school experience itself that pushes students into a narrow range of career choices. Few of these careers encourage addressing broader structural concerns with the law. Instead, Berkeley Law graduates often wind up viewing law as unalterable and decaying plumbing, rather than as architecture that may be torn down, transformed, and rebuilt for a more just future.

I attended law school so that I might learn about how law generates inequality. I wanted to know how law got us to where we are today, where we may end up if we don’t change anything, and how we could use the law as a creative tool to get us to where we would rather go. Arriving to campus and finding these opportunities lacking, I sought to build a community around discussing how we can transform the law to encourage greater dignity and equality. Having been an avid follower of LPE Blog since its inception, I reached out to the blog organizers for help with bringing LPE to Berkeley. Since then, several of my colleagues and I have sought to make LPE a lasting and vibrant academic community at my law school with the indispensable help of our steering committee.

The ten-student steering committee is building an LPE chapter at Berkeley Law to help students understand and reimagine how law structures politics and economics as a community. Thus far, we have hosted an introductory lunch talk with Professor David Grewal and a happy hour for students interested in LPE to get to know each other. Our next event is a lunch talk co-hosted with the Berkeley Journal of International Law on November 18th on the intersection between LPE and international law. Next semester, we are hosting an LPE reading group and lunch talk series. We are also working on a number of efforts to connect with students at other campuses, including a working with the UC Irvine Law School’s LPE chapter to build an LPE research interests database and organizing a Bay Area law schools LPE happy hour later this year. We also hope to participate in Stanford Law’s Shaking the Foundations conference, Yale Law’s Rebellious Lawyering Conference, and the inaugural Law and Political Economy conference at Yale Law in April 2020.

We believe our biggest success so far has been in cultivating a profound sense of urgency regarding our current environmental and political crises and regarding the importance of addressing them. Going forward, we will likely work on more curricular reform and addressing the problems in legal education: the admissions process, the 1L curriculum, the career development opportunities, and even the feelings of alienation and loneliness those factors engender. Most importantly, we hope to provide a counterweight to the sentiments among our membership that the law school system guides students unreflectively into only a handful of types of jobs that uphold a system we believe to be inflexible and unjust.

In many ways, Berkeley Law is fertile ground for this LPE-oriented perspective. Berkeley Law is home to both a JD and a JSD program, as well as a unique Jurisprudence and Social Policy PhD program. The JSP program offers a unique interdisciplinary graduate program for students interested in the intersection of law and sociology, history, philosophy, economics, and political science. While other schools offer law-adjacent PhD programs, Berkeley’s JSP degree stands apart as being primarily concerned with law’s centrality in social processes and institutions. As such, the core premises of the JSP program are deeply compatible with LPE’s commitment to positive social change. The LPE group has attracted both JD students and a diverse group of students from interdisciplinary studies, such as from the JSP program, who were excited to learn of the nascent LPE project, and to find a community of like-minded critical thinkers.

Berkeley is also home to a vibrant community of scholars and practitioners interested in achieving social change outside of the law school. We have active NLG and ACS chapters, whose work on legal practice we fully support. We view our contribution as more oriented toward building the intellectual foundations of a new critical tradition. Moreover, we firmly believe that a dedicated LPE society could provide an interdisciplinary framework to supplement the work of these other groups. Together with our cross-campus sister organization, the Berkeley Network for New Political Economy, we offer an interdisciplinary space where groups from across campus can inform a more robust conception of law in society.

JD students at Berkeley Law don’t often see themselves as the eventual inheritors of power, nor do they acknowledge their responsibility to lay the groundwork for radical change in this time of crisis. Our hope is to try to offer an outlet through which Berkeley Law students can build creative thinking, dissent, and systemic critique into their practice. We want those who are touched by our group to come out as practitioners, judges, and scholars in community with each other and committed to ensuring equity and dignity for all.

Berkeley Law or Bay Area law students interested in staying updated or getting involved with Law and Political Economy Society at Berkeley can sign up for our e-mail list or e-mail us directly at berkeley.lpesoc@gmail.com.

Sarang Shah is a 2L at Berkeley Law. Sarang would like to thank Daimeon Shanks his helpful comments in preparing this post.