Legal Twitter divided over review of barrister’s book

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By Legal Cheek on


Critique of Adam Wagner’s new lockdown tome splits opinion on social media

An Oxford academic’s review of a human rights barrister’s new book on lockdown rules during the pandemic looks to have split the opinion of lawyers on Twitter.

In a recent review for The Critic magazine, newly-installed legal correspondent Yuan Yi Zhu described Adam Wagner’s new book Emergency State as “part undergraduate thesis, part apologia pro Twitter sua” — a play on John Newman’s book Apologia Pro Vita Sua [A defence of one’s own life].

Zhu also claims “barristers tend to make awful writers”, and goes on to accuse Wagner of getting “bogged down in petty proceduralism”.

The review went down well with some, with lawyer Gavin John Adams describing it as a “marvellous piece of literary criticism” and another tweeter calling it “completely delicious”.

Wagner initially responded to Zhu’s review on Twitter by congratulating him on becoming legal correspondent for The Critic, adding “I am always happy to engage constructively even with polemical reviews! (-:”.

But things didn’t end there.

The following day another legal academic chipped in: “I’ve not read Adam’s book, but I’m not convinced by a review that begins with ad hominem attacks and then doesn’t really stop reviews should be critical — they shouldn’t be needlessly nasty.”

In response, Wagner explained that the review reminds him of the “joke about the person who comes back from a cruise and says the food was awful and there was too little of it. ‘It’s terribly written, he should have written more (things I agree with)!’ But thank you — it is a very ad hominem review.”

Zhu then clarified that the reference to barristers making awful writers “isn’t against Adam specifically, but against all lawyers. Legal prose deadens style”.

Wagner tweeted again: “As I say have been saying to my son when he watches the YouTubers who delight in ‘destroying’ old films or video games, it is much easier to destroy than create. The former is of course better for the lolz and attention.”

Zhu replied: “I don’t especially delight in destroying this book because I like you as a person, but it is a bad book and I would be lying to my readers if I wrote anything else.”

The Secret Barrister came to Wagner’s defence, claiming the review was “spiteful” and “given the remarks in the opening paragraphs”, Zhu was “not blessed with self-awareness”.

But not everyone agrees with the assessment of Wagner’s book.

Legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg lauded it as “a book that needed to be written — and nobody could have done it better”, while the FT described it as “a vital contribution to a debate we need to have: how to ensure that the biggest casualty of the next pandemic is not the democratic model”. Former Supreme Court president Lady Hale even badged it as “riveting”.

Elsewhere, former Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption said the book did a good job of laying bare the human rights problems of lockdown and its enforcement, describing Wagner as a “a fierce and effective critic”. However, he felt the Doughty Street barrister fell short of a full analysis by declining to address the question of whether the attack on our freedoms was justified.

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