I thought this book review would be a no brainer. The Secret Barrister’s first book was brilliant. His/her second will be too, I thought, assuredly. And so it is. It is brilliant. And everything s/he says in it is right. And important.
But this bloody book review is NOT a no brainer. It’s been really hard. First of all, I am not the first clever lawyer to write a review of this clever lawyer’s book. Others have got there before me.
There was David Allen Green in Prospect Magazine, which ran with the headline and strap line : ‘The Secret Barrister exposes how political and media charlatans have vandalised the rule of law – “Fake law” offers a powerful corrective to self-serving claims from cynical and incompetent politicians’, and which noted the irony of a an anonymous lawyer lecturing us about fake law :
This is the second book by the “Secret Barrister.” There is, of course, a certain irony that a book about legal fakery is written by someone whose exact legal credentials are not revealed. That said, if a great deal of law in practice exists in the mind, then so can the authority of the “Secret Barrister.” We may not know their actual qualifications. But we can go by their attention to often grimy and telling detail, their verifiable claims about the law and justice system, and their consistently light and engaging manner. The authority of this author is in the sheer quality of the writing. To keep up to this standard in tweet after tweet, blogpost after blogpost, and now book after book is remarkable—especially if, as the author tells us, they do all this in addition to a busy and stressful criminal practice.
The Times ran a review by barrister and legal author Thomas Grant QC, which told us oh-so-eloquently why this book was bloody brilliant :
The SB is an accomplished writer who through vivid metaphor can enliven the most recondite legal concepts. Some passages of Fake Law have the tone of a law lecture, but the truth is not always fascinating and it is rarely easy. Still, this is an urgent and highly readable book. You will come away from it feeling that your mind has been purged. The intellectual project that started with the Enlightenment — purveying truth and slaying mendacity — unfortunately requires constant renewal. Fake Law is a valuable contribution to that unceasing battle.
Yes, I had to look up recondite, too (little known, abstruse – abstruse means difficult to understand, obscure btw – this is why I am not a QC). So like a lawyer to select recondite language with which to review a book about ‘recondite legal concepts’…
But let us not duplicate work here. I tease about the language, but I do adopt what my learned friends have said and refer you to their reviews – there is no need for me to rehearse what they have already so eloquently laid down. I don’t disagree with any of it.
Now. Let’s cut to the chase. I have some other things to get off my chest.
First, a declaration : I am a lawyer. This book is, at its heart, a defence not just of law but of lawyers, and of legal twitter. And SB is our gowned and masked crusader in the big wide world where we mutants are reviled. Those of us who haunt the halls of legal twitter already know everything that is in this book. We agree with everything SB says. We’ve joined in the debates as they emerged, berated the tabloids, the stupid politicians, corrected the plebs, stamped our feet, got shouty with our keyboards and paraded our own superiority. Of COURSE this bloody book is brilliant and clever, just like the first. It’s us. It’s the bar. It’s our specialness writ large beneath a snazzy cover.
But here’s the thing. Lawyers doing reviews of this book have the motivation, concentration and incentive to finish this book. Not only is it quite rude to be sent a free copy of a book and not bother reading it, but in fact, when all the stories in it are familiar to you because you lived them at the time, it’s a really quick, easy read (though I still couldn’t quite get this review done in time for publication day – I am a second tier reviewer and only got my copy a week before release day). For us, pages filled with ego boosting pro-lawyer prose roll by with ease, making the experience almost cheering, so much so that one could almost forget momentarily SB’s more depressing message about the persistent and pernicious attacks on the justice and the rule of law made by the Government and the media and the ease with which those messages are absorbed and accepted – we know we’re worthy even if the public and the Government don’t appreciate us. Of course I wanted to review this book! But there really is little point in me writing a review that amounts to no more than marking my chum’s homework.
We lawyer readers of SB are the converted – I wonder if the public will have the inclination in large numbers to purchase and then wade through a book which, whilst righteously accurate, does require quite high literacy skills and concentration to digest (notwithstanding SB’s skill in summarising and lightening with humour), and which is threaded through with the (politely and carefully made) accusation that the intended mainstream reader is ignorant, uneducated, has been played by the media, the Government, and their own failure to stop and think before judging? I dunno. In fact I think David Allen Green touches upon this in his review when he says :
Fake Law is mostly concerned with the far broader perils that flow from a deficient public understanding of the law, and may sometimes seem to be conflating two problems—the cynicism of those who want to abuse the law, as well as those who simply don’t understand it. Perhaps each might better merit a separate book.
The more I think about it the more I think that this book faces some structural and stylistic problems. It’s headline is that ‘THE DAILY MAIL AND MALIGN GOVERNMENT LIED TO YOU SHOCKER!’ – a punchy, digestible headline for sure, for which there is a ready audience. But the actual 400 pages of analysis, may well exhaust the patience of those who would be attracted by such attention grabbers.
I say this as the chair of a charity whose aims overlap significantly with the SB (The Transparency Project) and indeed much of legal twitter. We just want to correct the inaccuracies peddled by governments and the media about our laws and how they work. We just want to help the public understand more about the legal system and why it’s important. Laudable. Important. Essential.
But, just as I sometimes have dark nights when I wonder what is the POINT of a legal educational charity in a world so mired in fake news and conspiracy theory, I also wonder whether a book by a clever lawyer, lauded by other clever lawyers in clever reviews fix the problems that it so rightly identifies? I don’t think so. Perhaps the book will stand as a record in years to come of how we reached a point of where the rule of law collapsed. If the books haven’t all been burnt. But will it stop the rot? I don’t think so. I think that SB’s book is like an old LP record that we get out and caress and sentimentally play over and over to make ourselves feel better about a relationship that has ended and that we long for but know is over. In fairness it is clear from the epilogue that SB is not deluded enough to expect it to FIX the problem as much as catalyse our realisation of how pervasive and pressing this societal problem is, and how much we need to be constructing a way out.
This week the Bar Council published a piece of advertorial for a PR Firm telling us barristers how we could use social media to develop our brand. I’d like to think that most of legal twitter is not there for the “brand opportunity” (yeurk), but primarily to connect, learn, share knowledge and survive. But there is no doubt that when lawyers get together we have a tendency to crow and scoff and bludgeon poor unsuspecting normals with our legal baseball bats. And boy do we know how to project our own voices and articulate our rightness. Legal twitter can be oblivious to how tiresome the public sometimes find us. As a community we are sometimes a little tone deaf, and susceptible to the charms of the echo chamber of twitter. For my part, whilst I have done my fair share of exasperated foot stamping about the BS pumped out by certain media outlets or the idiocy of individuals with keyboards, I have come to think that softly softly is more likely to catch the monkey. Mere broadcast of a counter-narrative is far less effective than dialogue. Which is not to say that dialogue always works – it is often as depressingly ineffective as a good old tantrum.
Either way, I don’t think ultimately that the skillful branding and marketing of SB and his/her book will be enough to overcome these issues about the gap between SB’s intended audience (The ignorant, hoodwinked and misled masses) and their interest in reading a long book by a clever lawyer, even if it is marketed with punchy hashtags, and its author is given a super hero air with mask and ‘cape’ style gown. I know that the first book was a bestseller, and this book is no less good. But I think it’s target audience is somehow different – SB is not talking to the avid readers of books who will buy such a title in vast numbers, but to those who don’t read books at all, just headlines and maybe an online article. This book makes demands of a lay reader that mean that it’s mainstream reach is unlikely to be as great as SB, the publishers – or we lawyers – would wish. I want it not to be so, but I fear that it is. It’s too hard. There are easier ways of understanding the world – that involve less effort, less thought and less cognitive dissonance. Those who need to read this won’t be interested or won’t have the motivation to see it through. The public isn’t ready to hear it.
When I first saw Home Office tweets about ‘activist lawyers’ coinciding with the run up to the book’s launch I imagined writing a book review japing about how the Ministry of Justice had obviously been recruited to play a part in a canny PR campaign to make this book seem even more timely. But as I write now, with Priti Patel repeating those slurs against us – all of us – that joke rings a bit hollow. The Government tweet this because it’s what people want to hear. Priti has got 12.5k likes for this tweet :
Whilst SB’s ‘publication day’ tweet got only 1.5k.
In fairness, SB’s RT of that tweet commenting on Priti’s latest activist lawyer tweet also has 2.2k likes at the time of writing. But what proportion of these likes are from legal twitter?
So I ask, will those who really need and ought to read and be educated by this book bother? That I do know the answer to : of course they bloody won’t. The people who will read it are the minority of members of the public with an interest in the detail of our democratic and legal system and a tolerance for law and detail, and sufficient education and skills to access it – and lawyers like me who value the reassurance of a validating essay on why we are right and wise.
It might be said that the pessimism I display in this book review is, ironically, another illustration of how arrogant and patronising we lawyers are to non-lawyers. It’s not about suggesting the plebs are stupid, but we have to acknowledge the reality, that much of society habitually sources it’s information about the world via the tabloids, social media or online. I prefer to think that I have a healthy sense of how insufferably boring a droning lawyer can be to a normal person. Even when they are right. Which of course we always are.
In spite of what I say here, I wish SB’s book every success. It truly is all those things that the previous reviews say it is and it is every bit as on point as the first. He is depressingly right about it all. And the proposals for a way out in the epilogue (which I won’t spoil for you) are as good a set of solutions or mitigations as can be, and rightly recognise we need to build democratic and legal literacy into our society from the ground up. For my part, I hope that every MP and newspaper editor will read it and think about the consequences of their actions, and that this book will be put in every school library. I hope that it will bring about some enhancement of the dire state of our public discourse, for it is certainly not just a cabal of activist lawyers who would benefit from it. And in the meantime I, and all my colleagues and friends who make up legal twitter will carry on tirelessly correcting #fakelaw wherever we see it and trying not to be too insufferable about it. Because whilst I have gloomy days like today when I think it’s just a waste of energy I also know that it’s really important to keep on standing up for truth and the rule of law.
Feature pic : courtesy of TaylorHerring on Flickr.