critical legal theory

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Critical legal studies (CLS) is a theory which states that the law is necessarily intertwined with social issues, particularly stating that the law has inherent social biases. Proponents of CLS believe that the law supports the interests of those who create the law. As such, CLS states that the law supports a power dynamic which favors the historically privileged and disadvantages the historically underprivileged. CLS finds that the wealthy and the powerful use the law as an instrument for oppression to maintain their place in hierarchy. Many in the CLS movement want to overturn the hierarchical structures of modern society and they focus on the law as a tool in achieving this goal.


CLS was officially started in 1977 at the conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but its roots extend earlier to when many of its founding members participated in social activism surrounding the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. The founders of CLS borrowed from non-legal fields such as social theory, political philosophy, economics, and literary theory. Among noted CLS theorists are Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Robert W. Gordon, and Duncan Kennedy. 


Although CLS has been largely contained within the United States, it was influenced to a great extent by European philosophers, such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, Max Horkheimer, Antonio Gramsci, and Michel Foucault. CLS has borrowed heavily from Legal Realism, the school of legal thought that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. Like CLS scholars, legal realists rebelled against accepted legal theories of the day and urged the legal field to pay more attention to the social context of the law.


CLS includes several subgroups with fundamentally different, even contradictory, views. Feminist legal theory examines the role of gender in the law. Critical race theory (CRT) examines the role of race in the law. Postmodernism is a critique of the law influenced by developments in literary theory, and it emphasizes political economy and the economic context of legal decisions and issues.

Further Reading

For more on critical legal studies, see this Harvard Law Review article.

[Last updated in August of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]