Beyond Courtroom Arguments: Why International Lawyers Need to Focus More on Persuasion, Part I

Written by

Steve RatnerSteven Ratner is the Bruno Simma Collegiate Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School.

Persuasion is at the heart of the lawyer’s – including the international lawyer’s – task.  The lawyer may be persuading a decisionmaker of the merits of her client’s case; or persuading another party, or even her own client, of the need to follow the law; or persuading lawyers on the other side, or even her own side, of the best legal strategy to pursue to resolve a problem.  For the international lawyer, like the domestic lawyer, most of that persuasion takes place outside any courtroom, whether in negotiations, hearings, private meetings, or public statements.  Those institutions or individuals making the decisions on a client’s interests are far more likely to be regulatory or political actors than they are to be judges – particularly in the international context, where the nuts and bolts of legal claim and counterclaim are still beyond judicial scrutiny. Critical to the lawyer’s role in that process of persuasion is the question of whether, in those settings, a legal argument really works – whether it actually convinces the audience.

Lawyers do not generally ask this question when it comes to courts.  We assume that international and domestic courts will be persuaded by legal arguments because their mandate is to decide cases based on the law alone – such that we’d question their legitimacy if they overtly set aside legal arguments in favor of non-legal arguments (moral, economic, or otherwise, though there can be recourse to ex aequo et bono).  And we would all be guilty of malpractice if we did not present that best legal argument to a court.

But what about the lawyer’s role in persuading all those non-judicial actors – the ones that are more likely to make a difference to the client’s interest?  In the international realm, whatever the client, lawyers have to persuade governments, international organizations, powerful nonstate actors, and the general public.  Beyond the client’s interests, as international lawyers, we are also presumably committed to the idea that international actors follow the rules.  If an actor is violating the law or contemplating doing so, do we know what works to convince it to stop doing so?  How helpful is legal argumentation?

This issue has intrigued me ever since I was a State Department lawyer and continues to do so as I’ve worked in various capacities as a legal expert for the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities and the ICRC as well as a member of the UN Secretary-General’s panels of experts on accountability in Cambodia and later in Sri Lanka.  In these jobs, the key audiences that my employers or I were trying to persuade are very rarely courts.  Yet I’ve always been bothered by the proclivity of most doctrinal international law scholarship to gloss over the obvious reality that the lawyer’s job is not just to come up with the best legal argument to persuade a court – but rather to employ all his or her skills to solve a problem for a client.  In this post, relying somewhat on a recent piece, I want to review the scholarship on persuasion and my sense of different transatlantic views of the issue.  In the next post, I will offer some thoughts on why international lawyers should care about more than legal arguments.

Where We are on Understanding Legal Persuasion

Scholarship on persuasion is, more or less, a subset of scholarship on compliance – on why states (alas, the scholarship is mostly about states) follow or violate rules of international law.  It is overtly interdisciplinary, with IR scholarship making key contributions.  So the underlying assumptions of institutionalist, norm-centered, liberal, and constructivist approaches often affect scholars’ views on persuasion.  Current understandings regarding the role of persuasion by one actor (the persuader) to induce another (the persuadee) to comply with the rules seem to fall into two camps.  Static theories examine the relationship between the persuader and the persuadee, focusing on fixed traits of the parties or the norms at issue, without much regard to what is actually communicated between the actors.  These factors include relative power of the actors, the extent to which they are repeat players or in one-off games, the internal makeup of a state, or certain qualities of the norm.  These theories view the actual communication process as essentially a sideshow – that it cannot influence the decisions of actors to comply or not comply.

Dynamic theories, on the other hand, focus on the microprocess of interaction and communication between the two entities.  Some institutionalists accept the relevance of argumentation, but only if one side introduces new information into the process that changes the other side’s calculations of how to advance its endogenously determined interests.  Early constructivist theory identified a process whereby norm entrepreneurs persuade domestic actors to endorse an emerging norm through a so-called “norm cascade.”  A promising approach has been taken by a group of German constructivist IR scholars, following Habermas, who suggest that certain conditions during international negotiations allow for argumentative persuasion to convince states to change their mind – as opposed to simply their positions.  Thomas Risse examined the possibility that a “common lifeworld,” in Habermas’ terms, can prevail in certain international settings, such that the parties are truly open to being persuaded by the other side.  They have also relied on psychological research on persuasion.  Beyond these theories, the policy-oriented school of international law, which has strongly influenced my thinking, has long viewed law as a process of communication and thus recognized that compliance depends on persuasion.

However, not even the dynamic theories amply address the invocation of legal norms during the conversation about compliance. They do not explain the choices behind or consequences of the persuading entity’s invocation of the law and the difference between such a dialogue and one that does not invoke the law.  Thus, for example, much of the constructivist literature on norm cascades fails to differentiate between norms that are socially desirable and those that are legally required.  The paradigmatic cases, such as the antislavery movement, generally concern social norms that were not, during the norm cascade, legal rules.  Even the work in the Habermasian tradition generally does not isolate specifically legal arguments. The notable exception in this regard is Ian Johnstone, who describes how legal arguments within international organizations are particularly powerful; yet his focus is on legal argumentation as improving discourse overall, rather than the choices participants make between legal and nonlegal argumentation.

Beyond IR scholarship, the literature on the role of law in persuasion in noninternational settings is generally confined to the courtroom context.  But, in this micro-universe, the dialogue is retrospective and the targets of arguments are judges and juries operating in a rarified atmosphere far from political realities.  While a sympathetic defendant or victim in a criminal case may influence those decision makers as much as the law, legal arguments are still central to – indeed, the raison d’être of – that venue.

As a result, most scholars have not delved deeply into the process of persuasion, and we still see a gap when it comes to the power of specifically legal argumentation.  Much remains to be done on some key questions, including why actors do or do not invoke legal arguments to persuade other actors to undertake certain conduct; the different forms legal argumentation can take; and whether legal arguments work.  I think legal scholars can and should make a large contribution to answering these questions and need to leave the theorizing to IR folks.

A Transatlantic Rift?

Yet in advocating such a role for international lawyers, I also sense a greater interest in these questions by U.S., Canadian, and Australian (and to some extent U.K.) scholars than those based in continental Europe.  I would suggest at least three reasons for this divergence and would welcome reactions from readers about these.

First is the strong tradition of legal realism on one side of the Atlantic, where law students – future lawyers and academics — are taught not merely the contents or even the nuances of the rules and doctrines, but about what difference law really makes on behavior.  Lawyers see themselves as problem solvers and not just as writers of legal opinions or briefs or as clarifiers of doctrine.  My sense is also that, as a result, those lawyers, including international lawyers, are more integrally involved — and trusted by their clients – in decisionmaking and strategy than on the continent.  At the same time, continental Europeans may well be handicapped to serve in these capacities; in a world where so much international policymaking, negotiation, and advocacy takes place in English, states (as well as international organizations and NGOs) often entrust the drafting of key documents – a critical phase of lawyering — only to native-English speakers, thus perpetuating their roles as hands-on advisers.

Second, within the legal academy in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, interdisciplinarity, whether with IR theory, feminist jurisprudence, or economics, is welcomed and not seen as some sort of threat to the integrity of legal academia.  Despite the globalization of international law, I still get the sense that many trained in the European formalist tradition strive too much for the perfect doctrinal solution that might convince a court but prove perfectly useless to convince decisionmakers in nonjudicial settings.  That view seems to assume that because formalist argumentation is de rigueur in some arenas (e.g., before an international court), other analytical approaches are somehow flawed.  One finds an aversion to IR theory as somehow too American – even hegemonic — leading to an isolated, almost purist sense about what lawyers should do. One need only compare textbooks and courses offered on each side of the Atlantic to see the contrasting role for interdisciplinarity.  Indeed, about ten years ago, the co-authors of my casebook and I offered a defense (in three languages) of our approach in response to Gilbert Gillaume’s views on American legal education.  One cannot lump all of Europe together; in terms of the two largest traditions, French scholarship seems more formalist and isolated in key respects than German work.

ŸThird, the entire subject of compliance does not fit in neatly with the formalist categories for the study of international law, notably the doctrinal straitjackets of “enforcement” and “dispute settlement” that dominate European treatises and approaches.  In the narrowest sense, too many scholars limit their inquiries regarding the best methods to respond to violations of international law to the role of international tribunals – whether the ICJ, ICC, WTO DSB, ECHR, ICSID, etc.  At best they may look at the list of options in Article 33 of the Charter.  But any practicing lawyer knows that these methods are not how most disputes are resolved; these boxes miss the day-to-day persuasion that takes place at multiple levels whereby actors try to convince others of the merits of their legal views, including legal views that another party is violating the law.  Relatedly, European scholarship seems to see lack of compliance with international law rules principally as the law violator’s problem and not possibly symptomatic of the law’s problems in terms of defective rules.

Overcoming this divide will be a formidable task.  One consciousness-raising effort might be for those academics who have not tried it to find a way to see how the law really works to influence behavior.  Volunteer some time — or, if you can find funding and your institution allows it, take a leave – to work on legal issues for a government, intergovernmental organization, or NGO (of whatever size).  In these organizations, the practice of law is mixed with politics and policy.  If you can work out an arrangement with one to be integrated into their work, the benefits will flow both ways.  Although service as a lawyer for or before courts or arbitral bodies has many rewards, it presents only a small slice of the process of claim and counterclaim in which international law actually affects – or does not affect — the behavior of global actors. As Anne Peters has recently written in the EJIL, “legal practice provides the ‘reality’ check for international legal scholarship.”

In my next post, I’ll offer some thoughts for understanding how persuasion, including legal argumentation, works as a way of promoting compliance with international law.

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Dan Joyner says

September 10, 2013

I am an American law professor, who has spent a lot of time and received much of my education in Europe. I consider myself to be essentially formalist in my approach to international law. I find the tone of this post to be a rather condescending criticism of formalism, without an evenhanded mention of the downsides of realism - i.e. that legal realism tends to lead to subjectivity in the interpretation of legal rules, flexibility of understanding to the point of virtual nonexistence of rules, and the ability of powerful states to take advantage of this flexibility and subjectivity in order to disclaim any legal limits on their power. I think that Professor Ratner should be a bit more circumspect and a bit less preachy about the virtues of international legal realism, and the American way of viewing things.

I'll go ahead and say that from my perspective, scholarly writing on true public international law topics is a rare thing among American law professors, and I could probably count the number of us engaged in this program on two hands. Most law professors in this country who claim to write in international law, are actually writing essentially about American constitutional law and its dynamics with international law. These are, in truth, foreign relations lawyers and not true public international lawyers in my opinion.

Jon Bellish says

September 10, 2013

I think your comment brings out many of the issues from Prof. Ratner's piece. You say that legal realism in academia "lead[s] to" subjective, flexible, and non-principled interpretation of rules -- especially on the part of powerful states. I'm not sure that powerful states got these ideas from realist legal academia. For me, the reverse seems more plausible: that legal realism emerged in response to the observed phenomena you describe.

Formulated that way, the question simply becomes what, if anything, to do about it. I think that is the question the realists engage directly. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on what what role legal formalism could play in changing powerful states' behavior vis-a-vis legal norms, or whether you think that public international lawyers and/or professors should be engaged in working to shape behavior in that way.