Learning the Law in a Changing World

At SELC, we are dedicated to creating more just and resilient local economies. And increasingly, we are exploring what a more just and resilient practice of law might look like.

SELC's Wheel of Resilience

SELC’s Wheel of Resilience

A critical insight from the wider resilience movement is that we live in a world in transition. Institutions and ways of thinking that developed in the Industrial Age – including the institution and process of legal education – are no longer capable of adequately responding to our emerging set of social, economic, and ecological crises. I am hoping to undertake the legal apprenticeship to learn the knowledge and tools needed to serve the emerging legal needs of the resilience movement – and also to explore how a different approach to learning the law might change how law is practiced and understood.

Until very recently, I had never considered becoming a lawyer. But through my work at SELC, I have become increasingly aware of the power of the law as a lever for social change – both through the top-down legislative process and through the bottom-up process of supporting communities, building relationships, and democratizing access to legal knowledge and services.

However, as someone committed to building community resilience and economic justice, I have asked myself: can I serve as a lawyer without in some ways reproducing the same rigid system that maintains injustice and inequality in the first place?

I’ve had access to nearly every form of privilege one can have in this society. But if I can help create space for others to access the privilege of legal knowledge and expertise by modeling the apprenticeship journey, creating systems of support and resources along the way, perhaps that is a step towards a more just and resilient legal community.

Attorneys and apprentices at the Resilient Communities Legal Cafe

Attorneys and apprentices at the Resilient Communities Legal Cafe

If our legal system evolves through case law, imagine what that system might look like if those arguing new cases, advocating for clients, and pushing the law forward actually embodied the diversity and pluralism of our society? What if lawyers shared the same cultural traditions and experiences as the people they worked for? What if the process of learning the law directly benefited the communities where aspiring attorneys live and learn? What if lawyering was practiced in the context of mutual aid rather than market exchange or social services (which both impute a certain need in the client and thus a form of deficiency)?

The path of the apprentice may offer more compelling social benefits than simply producing another lawyer. It may be an end in itself if it is contributing to a movement that democratizes and pluralizes the practice of law, and thus helps the legal system itself adapt to the rapidly changing needs and demographics of our society.

Here are some reasons why I am committed to the apprenticeship path:

  • The experiential approach to learning has more practical, immediate, and intrinsic value than traditional forms of abstract legal education,
  • It has the potential to empower people from different backgrounds with the tools and knowledge needed to change one of the most fundamental – and potentially pliable – institutions underlying our society,
  • It offers me an opportunity to both model and create support systems for future and current apprentices, and
  • In the process of learning the law in this way, I have an opportunity to use my privilege to open new pathways for others to realize their own visions of social and economic justice.

The apprentice movement is experiencing a resurgence in a wide variety of fields across the world precisely because it offers a more adaptive, integrated approach to learning in a changing world. At SELC’s recent apprenticeship conversation – part of our ongoing series of teach-ins and conversations at the Resilient Communities Legal Cafe – a practicing attorney and professor noted that traditional legal education “re-structures your brain.”

If that’s so, maybe it’s time to re-structure the brains of aspiring and practicing attorneys alike to better reflect our dynamically changing world.

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