In American legal education, full-time law students undertake a three-year course of study that introduces them to the legal subjects most crucial to the practice of law in the United States. The basic curriculum includes required courses in civil procedure, constitutional law, contracts, criminal law, property, and torts. Casebooks published by legal publishers factor significantly into the coursework, for they provide excerpts of judicial opinions and other materials to teach legal principles and rules, illustrate their applications, provide historical backgrounds, and introduce theoretical concepts. Casebooks are regularly updated with recent judicial opinions and other materials, and as a consequence they can shed light on doctrinal developments and theoretical shifts. The editions of some of the casebooks I read in law school provide insight into how American law students were introduce to critical approaches to law in the 1990s.
For instance, I encountered critical perspectives on law in the required contracts course in the fall of 1995. The assigned casebook was the third edition of law professors Charles L. Knapp and Nathan M. Crystal’s Problems in Contract Law: Cases and Materials, published in 1993. The book began with an introduction that, among other things, acquainted students with various perspectives on contract law theory, including critical approaches. After observing that critical theorists have brought about “[p]erhaps the greatest recent controversy in legal scholarship,” the authors noted that CLS scholars (often known in the legal academy as “crits”) take the process of deconstruction farther than their predecessors, American legal realists.
CLS scholars “argue that it is impossible to discover or develop any rational system of decision-making within our legal system as it now exists,” Knapp and Crystal explained. Furthermore, crits “maintain that attempts to justify the existing legal process are essentially a form of political ideology, mere rhetoric having as its consequence the preservation of existing distributions of power and wealth in society.” The casebook authors also observed that CLS offered a critical outlook more than a program for social change and that some crits sought as their ultimate goal “a utopian society based on altruistic and communitarian values.” After discussing CLS, the casebook authors noted that other theorists, writing from feminist and racial perspectives, contend that “the law has often served the interests of white males at the expense of women and members of minority groups” (12).