Symposium on Classism and the International Legal Profession: The C in Critical Legal Training

Symposium on Classism and the International Legal Profession: The C in Critical Legal Training

[Marie Badarne is Coordinator of the Critical Legal Training at the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR). Claire Tixeire is Senior Legal Advisor at ECCHR. Both have co-led ECCHR’s Critical Legal Training since its founding in 2012, now a part of ECCHR’s Institute for Legal Intervention.]   

Over the past decade, the co-authors have led the Critical Legal Training, a year-round international traineeship program for aspiring human rights lawyers at the European Center for Human and Constitutional Rights (ECCHR) in Berlin. ECCHR uses legal means to enforce human rights, to fight double standards in international law and to hold powerful actors, such as states and corporations, to account. To that end, ECCHR in general, and the Critical Legal Training in particular, keep up an ongoing exchange on the political context of our work to shape our understanding of transnational lawyering as a collaborative and inclusive act. 

While this is an enormous task, addressing the power structures within the human rights community is yet another story. The obstacles to entering professional networks in the international legal field often reflect the very privilege systems we work to dismantle. To get a foot in the door, young professionals usually need a topnotch education and unpaid internships, which perpetuates the middle-class or even elitist background many human rights practitioners have. Coming from non-academic households certainly did shape our vision for the Critical Legal Training to not only take a critical look at the law as a tool of power but also at the question of access to the legal profession.

How to break the cycle of class discrimination? In this piece, we want to share our experiences developing the Critical Legal Training as an internationalist co-learning and networking space that values critical and decolonial approaches to law, and reflect on the systemic obstacles being faced, such as difficulties to fundraise for paid traineeships, visa requirements, or working with different research standards. Discussing class-based exclusion and class struggles form part of our critical perspectives approach, also because in its international dimension, class privilege can play out differently across the North-South divide. Yet, the invisible C of class in the Critical Legal Training is not sufficiently engaged with. 

By analyzing successes and setbacks in our work, we hope to provide a few insights on ways to move forward.

Our Perspective

Let us start by acknowledging that as a Berlin-based hub for progressive international lawyers, ECCHR—and with it the Critical Legal Training—is a very privileged space. 

ECCHR’s approach to international human rights work recognizes that in order to realize our vision of justice as a global, collaborative, strategic and long-term effort, conducting cutting-edge casework will not be enough. It requires a holistic view on legal interventions and transnational collaborative lawyering, and it must encompass the exchange of knowledge and practices across generations and world regions, including across disciplines. By focusing on training and co-learning, the Critical Legal Training plays a key role in putting this idea into practice. 

Traditionally, lawyers are trained to learn rules and to adopt a non-critical approach to law, as if disconnected from socio-economic and political contexts. ECCHR’s understanding of the law as an instrument of reproducing power means that human rights, international law and the systems in which we operate have to be seen from a critical perspective. The writings of TWAIL (Third World Approaches to International Law) authors, for instance, are inevitably considered in our training. The Critical Legal Training also reflects the concept that human rights lawyering is a political act, which informs our discussions as to how we practice it and exchange about it—all of which cannot solely be learned out of a textbook.  Participants of the Critical Legal Training spend most of their time contributing to the casework carried out by ECCHR’s legal programs. In addition to that, in our curriculum we host critical reading debriefs, lunch talks, and other group discussions using a critical lens on different aspects of international human rights law and practice.

What is not explicitly mentioned in the above description of our comprehensive vision is the class aspect. While social discrimination and class struggles are prominent topics in our discussions and analyses, this omission is still quite telling. How come that class so often falls behind as one intersecting exclusion factor too many?

International Law: A Privileged Branch of a Privileged Field

The opportunity to study law for many represents a significant step up the social ladder. For law students, the decision to become a human rights lawyer can be a luxury, because it is traditional lawyering or scholarship that can best guarantee status and economic independence.

Choosing public international law, and in particular human rights law, as trajectory means taking the risk of settling with less money than a corporate lawyer. Likewise, to be a critical scholar or practitioner takes some sort of security of livelihood, not only with a view to make a living in the future. It also requires a degree of social safety to have the time capacities and mental resources to actively look for less trodden paths.

It has been a pipe dream of leftist intellectuals since early Bolshevism that the oppressed classes are born revolutionaries. Often, however, they tend to be more traditionalist. This goes for the exploited classes, and also for people from migrant communities unless they are members of a political exile intelligentsia. It is important not to pass judgment on a perceived lack of critical thinking, and instead understand that there is no one-size-fits-all definition, and that established (i.e. Western, or academic) forms of critique are not all there is.

Those of us who made it into the circle and who have a critical or progressive approach wish for authentic representation in our profession, partly for self-reassurance as we do not want to speak on behalf of the oppressed but we want the oppressed to speak for themselves. Can this gap ever be closed? 

Widening Access and Network

We view the participants of the Critical Legal Training as our global partners of tomorrow in the legal practice, academia, and democratic institutions, or as transdisciplinary allies. In order to allow for critical and comparative exchange, the program must feed on multifaceted, cross-cultural contributions, which means that building a group that is diverse is essential to the program objective. In order to do that we need to carefully understand and consider the various layers of discrimination at play.

When considering classism as one of these layers—particularly exacerbated when it intersects with racism, sexism and patriarchy—we can first appreciate the extent to which one having ECCHR on their radar means privileged access to information about the existence of its training program. And the further away our colleagues are from Western Europe, the more privilege and effort it needs. In our context, law students or legal professionals from the Global South are often members of the middle class in their own society. Discussions on class can become tense with program participants from the Global North who may be less socially privileged.

It is beyond the reach of the Critical Legal Training to provide equal access across the North-South divide, but we set ourselves the goal of working towards it. In special scholarship calls, for example, instead of considering applicants from Ivy League or other similar universities, we give priority to candidates who attended less known, local universities, particularly from the Global South and other underrepresented regions, such as Eastern Europe. Previous internships with international organizations based in the Global North may be a potential exclusion factor, too. Here, however, the regional background of the applicant needs to be considered in order to not fall into another trap, namely to use Western or privileged understandings as default standard. It may well be that parents invested all their savings to allow their child to do an internship with the UN. It is our own learning experience, which more than 500 program participants have granted us over the years, that helps us in our assessment of applications. 

In addition to our special scholarship calls, we have an internal policy against unpaid internships, which means that ECCHR pays a stipend to trainees who have not been able to secure funding through their universities or other scholarship programs. To select candidates to the Critical Legal Training, we established a three-step review process. Firstly, we screen applications from the Critical Legal Training perspective and give recommendations to ECCHR legal programs based on considerations around ‘access and representation’ (i.e. social access barriers to human rights community and diversity aspects) and the candidates’ critical reflections on ECCHR’s cases. The programs then review the written applications with our recommendations and create a shortlist. Instead of focusing on the CV, a personal interview and written exercise can help assess the profile of the candidate. We do not ask for reference letters.

Once the participants complete the Critical Legal Training, we strive to continue offering our alumn* (ECCHR’s chosen gender-neutral spelling of alumni) a helpful networking platform. As our casework usually plays out on the long term, former trainees have in many instances become our cooperation lawyers when going back to their home countries. 

However, to actively maintain a network of alumn* demands significant financial investment, and, in the case of a non-profit, lasting and generous funders. Every year, ECCHR hosts an alumn* reunion in our Berlin office, but class considerations will again come in: travel grants to our alumn* cannot always cover all costs, nor apply across the board. 

Over the years, we have implemented the program with the support of one long-term funder and the institutional budget of ECCHR’s Institute for Legal Intervention. 

Systemic Firewalls 

With the scholarship project, we hit a firewall because it falls in between most funding criteria. Scholarship grants are usually merit-based and awarded to individuals rather than to organizations. Those that aim to increase equality in education understandably tend to target people who are not already at an advanced stage of tertiary legal education, and the ones with a global outreach focus their funding—rightly so—on the Global South. Moreover, even though funders increasingly look at sustainable human resources policies and salary scales in their grant-making criteria, there is a reluctance to pay for salaries, let alone remuneration for trainees and interns.

Apart from the difficulty to fundraise for paid traineeships, visa requirements are a fundamental obstacle to freedom of movement. Class is a central issue because entry to the Global North is granted based on economic interests. Illustrative of the classism at play, the less financially established a Critical Legal Training candidate from the Global South is, the more work time it requires, from their side and from ours, to support the visa process and obtain a permit.

Once within the Critical Legal Training, fluency in English is a standard that at least for the time being seems indispensable. In practice, dealing with different research standards and writing styles can at times be challenging. The work environment at ECCHR is highly professionalized, and it requires team resources to integrate contributions that do not conform to the practice established by renowned academic institutions.    

Ways Forward

There are a few practical steps we have used in the Critical Legal Training to open professional networks to colleagues against the hurdles of classism.

With regard to recruitment, a review of application standards and process can make a difference. This does not mean settling for low quality, but to embrace diverse types of knowledge and alternative ways of expression. This includes aspects of intercultural communication and social norms, such as Western informality versus non-Western formalism, or coded language.

This, however, does not solve the problem of funding. In order to break the class barriers, professional traineeships in international human rights work must be paid with a proper entry-level salary. Up to now, the international justice circles depend on a huge, highly qualified, unpaid or low-paid labor force. 

We want to end with a few remarks on the mindset that we feel insiders of the international legal community need. Though we keep emphasizing the importance of being a critical lawyer, it is vital to not exclude less critical or progressive minds from our work, especially when these colleagues have come a long way across social boundaries. It is an immense learning exercise for all involved, both to be introduced to critical perspectives and to realize that to engage with critique means privilege. Even more than that, it is crucial that we accept different perspectives on social norms as it relates to, for instance, gender roles, gender identity, or terminology around oppression, colonialism, resistance, and democracy.

In conclusion, we need a paradigm shift, and we can only try to contribute to it. It will take a long-term and concerted effort for the C to become visible.

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