Charting a New Direction for Social Science and Law in Action

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Cambridge University Press has released a new two-volume book series on New Legal Realism, an American Bar Foundation (ABF) research project that has evolved into a major contemporary school of legal study. The volumes were co-edited by Elizabeth Mertz, research professor at the ABF and the John and Rylla Bosshard Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

The goal of the New Legal Realism (NLR) project is to develop rigorous, genuinely interdisciplinary approaches to the empirical study of law. “The New Legal Realism” volumes introduce readers to NLR scholarship, while demonstrating the value of thoughtful interdisciplinary translation between law and social science. This scholarship charts a new course for interdisciplinary legal research by synthesizing theory, empirical research, global perspectives, and law in action. The volumes together demonstrate the importance of the NLR project, not only for legal scholarship, but for law schools and practices.

The first volume, “The New Legal Realism, Volume I: Translating Law-and-Society for Today’s Legal Practice,” is co-edited by Mertz, Stewart Macaulay, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin Law School, and Thomas W. Mitchell, professor at Texas A&M University School of Law. It lays the groundwork for the series with an innovative mix of theoretical, historical, and pedagogical perspectives. In this volume, leading scholars from a diverse mix of disciplinary backgrounds discuss issues ranging from the financial crisis and legal disenfranchisement of African-American landowners to intellectual property battles and gender and racial prejudice on law school faculties. Throughout, the volume offers a methodological blueprint for the future of empirical research on law, with a careful attention to the language of law and to interdisciplinary translation.

The second volume, “The New Legal Realism, Volume II: Studying Law Globally,” is co-edited by Heinz Klug, professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, and Sally Engle Merry, professor at New York University and a member of the ABF’s external research review body. This volume explores a crucial part of the NLR project—the integration of global perspectives and information into our understanding of law. Lawyers, judges, and other legal actors are increasingly influenced by broader interactions of national and international law. Those pursuing justice in global contexts must wrestle with the added problems of translation that emerge when vastly different concepts of law and local circumstances interact. In Volume II, the authors use empirical research to demonstrate the importance of understanding law in action, across all corners of the world. Contributors include ABF Faculty Fellow Sida Liu, who authored a chapter on the changing role of lawyers in China, and ABF Research Professor Carol A. Heimer, who co-authored a chapter on law in HIV treatment and research.

A national movement, New Legal Realism has seminal ties to the ABF. It began as an ABF research project co-directed by Mertz in the late 1990s. “It seemed clear that the legal academy was searching for a new way to integrate social science and law,” Mertz said. “After years of experience at the ABF, I knew that it was possible to bring the full range of disciplines together to understand law better—not just economics or psychology or anthropology, or any one approach, but all of them.” Mertz met with a group of scholars, including ABF Director Emeritus Bryant Garth, to discuss plans for a research project. This resulted in a panel, Is it Time for a New Legal Realism, at the 1997 annual meeting of the Law and Society Association (LSA). NLR scholarship has since been featured at subsequent meetings of the LSA and American Association of Law Schools.

In June 2004, the ABF co-sponsored the first of several NLR conferences in the United States at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The results of this conference appeared in issues of Law & Social Inquiry, the ABF’s leading sociolegal academic journal, and the Wisconsin Law Review. Mertz attended the first European NLR conference in 2012, and helped organize ongoing efforts in the U.S. In 2014, the ABF co-sponsored the 10th anniversary conference, held at the University of California, Irvine Law School.

“New Legal Realism really embodies some of the best lessons of the ABF—having high standards and integrating the best social science knowledge so that we can move the ball forward to reach law’s highest aspirations,” Mertz said. In the last two decades, NLR has flourished into an emerging school of thought in U.S. legal philosophy, culminating in the release of this landmark two-volume series.

“These two volumes make the substantive intellectual case, by argument and example, for the value of such a comprehensive, multidimensional approach to socio-legal studies within the legal academy,” wrote Michael W. McCann, the Gordon Hirabayashi Professor for the Advancement of Citizenship at the University of Washington, in the preface to the volumes. “The timing of these two new volumes is also propitious and marks a new self-conscious form of engagement. Law schools are in a moment of heightened panic about the crisis of their professional mission, and these volumes outline new directions in both research and teaching that can help to reconcile contradictory pressures that mark the current uncertain situation.”

“The New Legal Realism” volumes are also available for purchase on Amazon (Volume I and Volume II). For more information on New Legal Realism, please visit the website, Facebook and Twitter page.

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