Law 561A/B - Role of Law in Social Movements: Lessons from the US and Beyond

Scott L. Cummings

Scott L. Cummings

Robert Henigson Professor of Legal Ethics
Professor of Law
B.A. University of California, Berkeley, 1992
J.D. Harvard, 1996
UCLA Faculty Since 2002
Course Description:

This course will examine the role of law and lawyers in collective struggle. We will focus on important examples from history (e.g., the labor and civil rights movements) and contemporary practice (e.g., Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights). Our readings and discussions will explore the distinctive roles of law and lawyers in movements on the American left and the right, while also comparing the style and outcomes of legal mobilization in other countries. Our method will be to analyze and compare the context, objectives, tactics, and outcomes of specific social movement campaigns, focusing on how law and lawyers have played a role in advancing—and sometimes undercutting—movement aims. We are primarily concerned with understanding how lawyers and activists perceive the efficacy of legal action and evaluating the conditions under which law “works” as a social change tool (and what this means). Toward this end, we will distinguish between, and appraise the importance of, the “direct” and “indirect” effects of legal action—winning legal rights in court or through legislative action (direct) versus using law to raise consciousness of injustice, win public opinion, leverage policy concessions, or negotiate private resolutions (indirect). Assessing the use and impact of litigation will be a major theme. We will also explore the nature of representation in social movement contexts—what does it mean to represent clients and constituencies in complex social movement challenges? What conflicts do lawyers face and how can they best manage them?

Through case study analysis, we will explore three different sets of questions about the relation between law and social movements. First, how does law come to play a role in movement strategy? What are the legal issues that construct and frame injustice and how do activists and lawyers come to view law as an important tool of redress? Who makes the key decisions about when and how to deploy law? What tensions arise and how are they managed? How do lawyers’ professional responsibilities inform movement strategy? Second, what are the different objectives of legal action across movements and how do they relate with other movement goals? What strategies and tactics do lawyers use to achieve these goals and what factors predict their success? Are legal goals compatible or incompatible with movement ambitions? Does the way that legal goals get defined and executed differ across progressive and conservative movements? Finally, what are the social change outcomes and how do we judge their impact? What assumptions and methodological tools should we use to evaluate movement impacts? How do we answer the fundamental question: Does law ultimately help or hurt social movements? In the seminar, we will grapple with these questions and consider what they teach us about how lawyers should approach work in connection with collective efforts to transform society.  We will thus use the cases to reflect not just on what lawyers have done right and wrong, but what they might do better. 

This course will meet on the following dates:

Oct. 6, 2019 5-7:30 PM at my house

November 6, 2019 5-7:30 Campus

February 6, 2020 5-7:30 Campus

March 5, 2020 5-7:30 Campus

April 5, 2020 5-7:30 at my house

Course Learning Outcomes:


Course Information:
​Faculty Term Course Section ​Schedule ​Units Requisite Satisfies SAW
Scott Cummings 19F 561A SEM 2 Unscheduled 0.5 No No
  Course meets 5:00 - 7:30pm on 10/6, 11/6, 2/6, 3/5, 4/5. Third year students have priority to enroll during first pass.
Scott Cummings 20S 561B SEM 2 Unscheduled 0.5 No No
  Second part of a yearlong course. The Records Office will process enrollment for this course.This course meets from 5:00- 7:30pm on 10/6, 11/6, 2/6, 3/5, 4/5.