by Yves Dezalay and Bryant G. Garth. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 304pp. Cloth. ISBN: 9780226144627. Paper. $27.50. ISBN: 9780226144634. E-book. $7.00. ISBN: 9780226144665.

Reviewed by David Gurnham, Lecturer in Healthcare Law and Ethics, School of Law, University of Manchester, England, U.K. Email: david.gurnham [at]


The worldwide economic downturn precipitated by the collapse of financial institutions in the U.S. on the one hand, and more recent civil and political unrest in North African and Arab states on the other, may be quite distinct developments. However, they have each brought questions relating to the role of law and the legal profession to the fore. Such events underline the need for legitimizing structures and procedures in arenas of conflict, collapse and transition, and it is in being placed to manage these structures of legitimacy that the gives prominence to lawyers and their functions as brokers, bureaucrats and advocates. Yves Dezalay and Brayant G. Grant’s new book, ASIAN LEGAL REVIVALS, which insightfully draws together analyses of the role of lawyers with respect to economic and political power in a number of Asian countries, is a timely and welcome contribution to a volatile landscape. Significantly, it also provokes pertinent questions such as what good are lawyers, and what public good does a legal education bring? Is it realistic to expect from lawyers more than simply the desire to profit by serving the whims of those that can pay them the most? While ASIAN LEGAL REVIVALS is not intended to be a defense of the legal profession in these respects (indeed Dezalay and Garth make it clear that lawyers have often been markedly ineffective in exerting a positive influence on strong, authoritarian states), its highlighting of the central role of lawyers in the story of Asian nation states after colonialism certainly answers the latter question in the affirmative. For its focus on the legal profession in its international, colonial and postcolonial contexts, ASIAN LEGAL REVIVALS should be of interest to anyone concerned about the historical and geographical dimensions of questions of political power, capitalism and the machinery of legal practice.

Dezalay and Garth focus their study on those countries that constituted the periphery of imperial power in Asia: India, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines. These are nations that have emerged from the “shadow” of empire, and the authors’ concern is to trace the role of lawyers (and judges) in this emergence. China and Japan are of course the two regional powerhouses notably absent from this study, except as an example of historic imperial power and influence over Korea (in the case of Japan) and of present economic and political control over Hong Kong (China). Dezalay and Garth are interested in the first place with the identity of lawyers on the periphery of empire, and what these identities tell us about the role of law in the wider developments of Asian power [*330] structures. What sort of people were attracted to the law profession in colonial times, what attracted them in terms of types of work and reward, and how do these factors compare to their descendents in the independent nations? Dezalay and Garth skillfully weave personal accounts elicited in interviews, documentary evidence and a meta-study of existing histories of the region to bring to the fore the importance – inherited no doubt from colonial times – of class, social expectation and family ties, which in various ways have combined to produce legal elites. Organized around the intersecting themes of geography, historical epoch and specialism, the chapters of ASIAN LEGAL REVIVALS illuminate the cultural and political determinants of what it means to be part of an elite, and the ways in which this idea has changed according to the political arrangements in the countries since independence. Much of the book is given to the question of the extent to which lawyers (and by implication law) have contributed to developments in the relationships between the different organs of the state, and in particular to the prominence of democracy and the rule of law. The early chapters provide hope that the elite legal training grounds of, for example, London’s Inns of Court, attended by the sons of the upper echelons of colonized societies, would provide a sound basis for law in postcolonial Asian countries. However the story that emerges here of the nations breaking away from colonial rule is more often of a turn away from the rule of law towards authoritarianism. Dezalay and Garth draw attention to the development of law-schools as breeding-grounds for the men that would become the key players in independence, and also for peaceful and belligerent pressure for human rights. However, more often than not, the postcolonial supreme courts have been ineffective in the face of executive power that in many instances sought to use law and lawyers simply as means for legitimating their own tightening grip. A large portion of ASIAN LEGAL REVIVALS describes the inevitable degradation of the rule of law and of the reputation and make-up of the legal profession that have accompanied such cynical uses of law and lawyers.

ASIAN LEGAL REVIVALS has much to recommend it. The international outlook taken by Dezalay and Garth, and in particular the relationship between the lawyers of the postcolonial Asian nations, the former European powers, and power-blocs that have emerged since (namely the U.S. and China) demonstrate the relevance of this research. It takes a dynamic and broad perspective both to the historical dimensions of colonialism and post-colonialism for lawyers, and also to the geographical dimensions. On this same point, the weaving of qualitative empirical research into the historical narrative lends legitimacy and authority to the research without the book becoming bogged down in methodology. Its broad sweep in terms of historical development and geographical area, tied to the fluctuating fortunes of the legal profession in relation to economic and political power gives a useful oversight on the legacy of colonialism for contemporary power structures and relationships. Indeed, the overall picture painted here is sufficiently sensitive to the facts and to the fragility of legal capital to give due credit to the struggles for human rights and the rule of law [*331] while at the same time resisting any easy or sweeping predictions about the inevitability of ‘progress’ in that direction. One aspect of the book that I suspect will be of great interest to its readers is its analysis of the influence exerted by the U.S., as a colonial power in the Philippines, as a model for legal education and the rule of law, and crucially as an economic powerhouse and trading partner. Although prominence is given, as noted above, to lawyers educated at the English bar who pursued public interest legal work and advocacy for democracy and human rights causes, it is the role of the corporate law firms as brokers for the giant multinational corporations that are credited with the most relevance here, and arguably provides an explanation for the continued or renewed popularity of the legal profession with the elites. Dezalay and Garth leave readers in no doubt as to just how significant the U.S. has been for the Asian economies. U.S. foreign policy has also had a strong impact in the region, and we learn that even Jimmy Carter was persuaded to turn a blind eye to abuses of human rights and the rule of law by ‘strategic allies’ that pursued capitalist economic policies favorable to the U.S. (p.238).

For the sake of balance, there are a couple of other points that warrant a mention. The first is that, while the narrative is elegant and spare, its prioritization of descriptions of stories about personalities over more integrated or theory-driven argument may be viewed by some readers as giving quite considerable priority to the empirical over the theoretical. In fact, the argument made out in ASIAN LEGAL REVIVALS is particularly theory-light, which will delight some readers, but may not be favored by everyone. This left me feeling that there was quite a bit more to this work than has made the final cut. And while there is a theoretical context provided by, for example, the work of Pierre Bourdieu, this is given the lightest of treatment in the text.

ASIAN LEGAL REVIVALS has brought together a number of divergent concerns into a coherent and rewarding book. The reputation of the authors in this field is not in doubt, but this book will further secure their position as leading authorities on legal practice in the ‘shadow’ of empire. As I have said, the book will be of interest to lawyers and legal academics, but thanks to the linkages it draws between law, politics and business it should also appeal more widely than that.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, David Gurnham.