LILAC: Andrew Cook, James Faulconbridge: The firm as a new actor in legal education: implications for lawyers’ identity formation.

by Paul Maharg on 07/02/2010

[Again, no access so this is being largely written and uploaded much later]  Their study was funded by the ESRC – analysed the training & education of solicitors, including LPC & GDL and traineeship – the role of the university vis a vis the sociology of the professions.  Interesting on the issue of transnational ‘universities’ hosted by corporate and global firms.  Andrew and James called the process of producing lawyers with a particular view of what it is to practice law ‘identity regulation’.  They explored this in some detail through quotations from the process of socialisation of trainees as this took place within firms and across firms.  The LPC & GDL, they say, only set the groundwork for identity formation and regulation.  The firm itself through identity regulation provides a 'vocabulary of motives'.  Interesting phrase, that, and I'll come back to it in a moment.  They ended with a number of questions: can we associate professional lawyers with expertise related to a crafted knowledge-base?  What’s the identity of a lawyer in the eyes of firms?  What are the implications for the university law degree? And the implications for regulation: is the neo-liberal reform driving change in itself a good idea?

Both papers (Andrew & Hilary, Andrew & James) in this session were good pieces of sociolegal research.  But what was curious was how little debate there was in the session around legal education as such.  There were skirmishes around the concept of the liberal law school, and the distance between its activities and those of the firm's 'universities'.   It was as if legal education were still separate from the issues raised in the papers.  Which of course in many ways it still is.  

It reminded me of my own experience, quite early on as a legal academic.  As a mature student studying law at Glasgow U., I was curious about the link between legal education as it had developed in the academy, and what lawyers actually do in practice.  There was no information on this in what we were taught.  Why had it developed in this way?  I didn't practice law as a solicitor; so it was that, as a new lecturer, with permission of the partners, I found myself in a city centre firm of solicitors, where I would, with permission, sit in on lawyer-client interviews, talk with solicitors afterwards about the case, talk about their perceptions of trainees, their expectations of them and of their fee-earning colleagues.  I had a video camera and, where appropriate, with permission of lawyer and client, I would record interactions between lawyers and clients.  When not engaged in this I'd sit in the little kitchen/coffee room and talk with whoever came in.  Sometimes it was trainees or newly qualified lawyers, some of them quite drained by the emotional effects of dealing with clients who were going through trauma.  I talked to cleaners, to security staff, to senior partners, to consultant solicitors, to court practitioners.  Initially I viewed the coffee room as peripheral to what I was doing.  Gradually I saw it as essential, and my notes converged less on the lawyer-client interation, more on the office interaction.  I saw trainees learning rapidly in the co-operative environment of the office, and by learning I mean that their knowledge of academic law went through extraordinary change as they learned what to forget, what needs remembered and above all what to do with knowledge on behalf of clients. Law was no longer only propositional data: it was lived knowledge, that depended on participation and collaboration.

I hadn't planned it this way, but what I was doing was embedded anthropological research — a very modest version of situated research of the type carried out by Etienne Wenger, for instance, and written about by Lave & Wenger.  I grew fascinated by what I hadn't expected to learn, by the process of embedding.  I read up on Boas, on cultural anthropology, revisited Geertz (having encountered him through Stephen Greenblatt's work) with a new conception of what he was all about, and then discovered whole-case analyses carried out by Felstiner & Sarat — sociolegal classics.  When my time came to leave I found it hard to draw away from the small community of the office; but what I learned about the relational process of client representation I could not have learned any other way; and it deeply informed my approaches to professional legal learning.  There was so much data for curriculum development there — at almost every turn one would bump into practices — transactional, commercial, ethical, cultural, economic, social, linguistic — that needed to be picked up, analysed and used in legal education.

I remembered this experience when Andrew and James were talking about their methodology and their data — as I understood it (and I may be wrong) was gathered by questionnaire and interviews.  How would it have differed, I wondered, if they had sat with the subjects of their research in the coffee room, if they had been situated in the environment of the workplace, day in, day out?  Would this have had a difference in the ways that they perceived their subjects' 'vocabulary of motive'?  In the 1940s the phrase was used by C. Wright Mills to describe how actors in situations identify and articulate their motivations.  For Mills (anticipating decades of sociological analysis) 'the only source for a terminology of motives is the vocabularies of motives actually and usually verbalized by actors in specific situations.'  It's the 'specific situations' that I found absorbing as an observer, and which I wanted to know more about as a student; and it's the 'specific situations' that can be used so powerfully in legal education.  

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