Meet the Book Author: Up Against the Law

Luca Falciola, Columbia University, New York


In our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from Luca Falciola, who’s new book Up Against the Law: Radical Lawyers and Social Movements, 1960s-1970s was published in October 2022 with the University of North Carolina Press.

What is the book about?

Up Against the Law tells the story of U.S. lawyers’ militant engagement in the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The book casts light on the invisible army of combative attorneys, legal workers, and law students who joined forces with activists and, together, strove to bring about political change. 

The book’s chronicle starts in the early 1960s when a few of these legal practitioners went South to assist the civil rights movement, which was worn out by segregationists and lay defenseless. Then the book takes the reader to the university campuses where radical lawyers offered legal aid to the Free Speech, New Left, and antiwar activists who faced the contradictions of liberalism and first savored repression. As the research documents, these lawyers literally dived into the waters of political contention, rushing to Indian reservations, joining farmworkers in the fields, and patrolling Latino neighborhoods. Pioneering contemporary denunciation of mass incarceration, they also helped rebellious inmates and publicized their condition. As if that were not enough, radical lawyers rallied with those who defied the establishment by any means, including the Weather Underground and the Black Panther Party. No doubt, they put their commitment to legality to the test. 

Indeed, what makes this experience particularly unique is the fact that radical lawyers refused to be technicians borrowing their skills. They truly identified with their clients and saw themselves as organizers with legal knowledge––no longer attorneys for the partisans but “partisan attorneys.” This is why they challenged professional conventions and developed a critique of the law that questioned their own expertise and confidence in the legal remedies. Radical lawyers’ litigation strategies developed accordingly. They relied on innovative techniques of jury selection and groundbreaking use of expert witnesses. But most importantly, they made courtrooms’ walls more permeable, injecting politics into trials and making people’s voices heard, because political victories were deemed as much essential as legal victories.

Why did I write it?

While working on the history of social movements in those turbulent decades, I bumped into archival documents attesting to complex ties between activists and lawyers. I noticed that activists had routinely corresponded with lawyers and consulted with them ahead of their actions. Activists had received not only legal advice but also material and moral help. Lawyers, on their part, had risked their careers and even their lives to protect clients, including clandestine militants on the run.

I thought that this phenomenon was worthy of further exploration. The more I dug into it, the more I discovered that it was widespread and structured, involving thousands of professionals organized around networks. And yet, scholarly works had substantially overlooked this form of legal mobilization. With a few exceptions, both the history of social movements and the history of legal activism glossed over an entire category of actors. And even the history of the “rights revolution” of the 1960s neglected the contribution of these controversial attorneys. Most of the existing research dealt with public interest lawyers: lawyers inclined to work on cases of social interest, whose political commitment was often loose or transversal. Confident in the transformative power of the courts, public interest lawyers had mostly operated according to the principles of legal liberalism. By contrast, a different story materialized under my eyes. Interestingly, some of the above-described dynamics also resurfaced in contemporary American activism, in particular when illegal immigration or policing of black communities were at stake.

How did I go about doing this research?

The phenomenon that I sought to define and chart had unclear boundaries. The methodological challenge was great. A history of legal cases would have been potentially unlimited and haphazard. At the same time, a collection of lawyers’ biographies would have suffered from selection biases and would have pushed me toward the glorification of a few towering figures. 

The presence of a nationwide organization that gathered a large majority of radical lawyers helped me to unravel the knot. An alternative bar association, the National Lawyers Guild was––and remains––the reference point for those who possess legal competence and advocate fundamental social change. So, Up Against the Law follows the trajectory of the Guild, its members, and those in its orbit. Drawing on archival sources and original interviews, the research brings back the history of a collective endeavor: a multifaceted engagement made of tenacious trial work, vocal defense committees, passionate ideological debates, creative efforts in education and training, countless interventions to curb repression, and bold experiments in human and professional relationships.

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