Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy: A Contemporary Asian Reading of a Seminal Text

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Andra le Roux-Kemp


Law schools are peculiar places occupied by, dependent on, associated with, and exerting influence on a myriad of institutions and stakeholders. From law students’ efforts at mastering the allusive skill of legal reasoning to the challenges both tenured and untenured academic staff face in the neoliberalist higher education model where the legal profession and the consumers of the law school product exert increasing – and sometimes even impossible – demands, law schools and its populace have always been contested, hierarchical and image-conscious spaces. Indeed, as Ralph Shain noted in the Journal of Ideology in 2012, “[a]nyone who has suffered through law school would be grateful to have a good polemic against the institution”. This article offers such a polemic against legal education in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Over a period of four years, a selection of postgraduate law students from one of the (three) higher education institutions responsible for legal education and training in Hong Kong were asked to reflect upon their legal studies and future roles as legal professionals with reference to the 1983 self-published pamphlet by Duncan Kennedy, entitled “Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy: A Polemic Against the System”. Kennedy’s essay offered a critical analysis of the role of legal education in American social life at that time, and the manner in which it reproduced hierarchy in law, legal education, the legal profession, as well as in society generally. The narratives informing this article show that almost 40 years subsequent the publication of Kennedy’s text, and in a jurisdiction with an altogether different social context and facing its own political turmoil and civil rights’ aspirations, many parallels can be drawn with what Kennedy had observed in 1983.
Part I of this article sets the scene with a detailed overview of the legal education and training landscape of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from a legal-historical perspective to date. The discussion and analysis then turn to the narratives of Hong Kong law students, offering a window into their experiences as (unintended) participants in the hierarchies of law and legal education in Hong Kong. Much more, however, can be gleaned from these narratives than just how these students perceive their present legal studies and future roles as legal professionals in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. These narratives also offer a critical reflection on Hong Kong’s colonial past and present status as a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China under the principle of “one country two systems” (Part II). Culture-specific values impacting on these students’ legal studies and career decisions are revealed (Part III), and troublesome shortcomings in the current legal education and training landscape vis-à-vis the legal professional fraternity and political and socio-economic reality of Hong Kong are laid bare (Part IV). Much like Kennedy’s 1983 essay failed to bring about any real change in how law schools go about their business as cogs in the apparatus of social hierarchy, the narratives informing this article also conclude on a rather sombre and futile note. Be that as it may. At least their voices have been heard and the seemingly inescapable power struggles noted. This too is an important function of the law and legal discourse.

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Author Biography

Andra le Roux-Kemp, University of Lincoln

Associate Professor in Law, Lincoln Law School, University of Lincoln