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‘Emotion is always present’ in law

While lawyers are taught to think and work “objectively or dispassionately”, there is emotion behind almost every aspect of the law — which this Manchester law school reader said is important to understand.

user iconLauren Croft 20 March 2023 Big Law
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Dr Senthorun Raj is a reader in human rights law at the Manchester Law School in the United Kingdom and recently published a paper in the Feminist Legal Studies Academic Journal: “Legally Effective: Mapping the Emotional Grammar of LGBT Rights in Law School”.

Speaking recently on The Protégé Podcast, Mr Raj discussed the paper, as well as the importance of understanding the emotion behind the law and legal decisions.

In terms of what “emotional grammar” actually means — and how it pertains to LGBT rights — Dr Raj said that it relates back to the role of emotion in law generally.


“Most of us, lawyers, legal professionals, law students, probably have come to law for an emotional reason. We’re passionate about something. It could be that we’re passionate about changing the world. It could be that we’re passionate about learning, and we enjoy the challenge that comes with studying law. It could be that we’re passionate for a future where we’re financially secure, although we all know that that’s increasingly difficult, even in a career like law these days,” he explained.  

“People are motivated to do law for a particular reason. So, emotion is always present in law. And even if you think about law reform or you think about going to court, dispute resolution, if you think about what it’s like to be a lawyer generally, the day-to-day of your work, emotion is always present. It’s always there.”

However, Dr Raj said that lawyers are told and trained to sideline their own emotions and biases and work “objectively or dispassionately” — which he said was near impossible.

“Instead of trying to diminish emotion in law or trying to sideline it or erase it, what we should be doing is thinking critically about our emotions in law. What do they do? How do they affect the kind of litigation we do? How do they affect the kind of law reform we seek out? For me, this critical conversation requires us to think about emotion, not just as a kind of individual experience that we might have, but actually as a systemic or institutional issue in the legal profession, in legal education, in law schools,” he added.

“Which is why I turn to thinking about the role of emotion, particularly in the context of something like LGBT rights, because LGBT rights is one of those areas which generates enormous emotion. It’s a highly polarising conversation in many circles. People have very strong emotions. They can range from anything, from anxiety, disgust and fear on the one hand, to hope, joy, [and] love on the other.

“When we talk about some law reform issues, if it’s about addressing legalised forms of discrimination in workplaces or schools, we can see emotion in all of those conversations. And when we teach LGBT rights, particularly in a legal context, where we are training people to understand how the law can impact on LGBT lives and communities, how the law can be used to improve the lives of LGBT people, but also what the limits of the law are when it comes to addressing the issues that LGBT people face, we need to think emotionally because these are emotional questions.”

These kinds of emotional questions feed into a number of areas of legal practice, according to Dr Raj, who said that “you only need to pick up a judgement to be able to see the emotion on the page” and that “we do ourselves a disservice if we pretend that that legal analysis or jurisprudence isn’t emotional”.

“That’s not to discount the analysis, that’s not to say the analysis is incorrect, that precedent has been implied in a non-careful manner. But it is to say that there is an emotional grammar, if you like, that underpins that, the way we think about our emotions, the way we then express those emotions might not be conscious, but they can take form in ways that we don’t expect.

“For example, when we’re writing a judgement or delivering a judgement orally, we can be expressing emotion through the very articulation of a precedent or through the application of a particular statute to a particular scenario or the application of a previous case to a current one. And so, I’m interested in foregrounding that and getting people to think about that and acknowledging it,” Dr Raj outlined.

“It’s not to say that those forms of legal analysis that we’re more accustomed to are wrong and that we should abandon them and everything is now messy and we just kind of have radical subjectivity. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is we need to think carefully and critically with emotions in order to understand what’s actually happening fully, to fully grasp the picture of a legal decision or a legal conflict, not only because it can articulate for us what the limits of the law are but then also potentially point out where law can sometimes fail to deliver on its own promises.”

This, Dr Raj opined, is an area many lawyers and legal professionals are quite interested in — and that within any legal space, understanding the emotion behind the law is of the utmost importance.

“People can talk all they want about how law is divorced from passion, it’s all about reason and objectivity. And yet you go to any legal space, whether it’s the workings of a firm, go to a courtroom, go to parliamentary drafters office when they’re drafting statute, and you will see emotion at work, at play. Discrimination law is a really good field to think about, where discrimination law functions sometimes quite technocratically and quite specifically.

“So, things that we might think about as sort of microaggressions or institutional racism or homophobia or sexism might not be captured by discrimination law complaints. But that’s not to say that discrimination law itself isn’t also bound up in those broader conversations that we have emotionally about these issues. Because even the differentiation of what is unlawful conduct in a discriminatory sense is going to involve differentiating between different types of acts, and that often involves thresholds,” he explained.

“That’s an emotional calculation that people are making when they do that, and I think we need to be really upfront about that. And for me, that’s why I’m really interested in applying a kind of critical lens to emotion and actually sort of capturing how emotions function in law. So almost providing a kind of framework for people to understand the way law is communicating emotion, the way it’s imbibing emotion, the way it’s expressing emotion, the way it’s holding emotions together and what that does in different legal arenas, in different legal spaces.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Dr Senthorun Raj, click below: