If You Take One Humanities Course in Law School (And You Should), Take Law and Literature

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By Tim O’Brien ‘13

Law schools are rebranding themselves as training grounds for “practice-ready” graduates in an effort to make new lawyers more attractive to employers. While that may make good economic sense, there’s also great value in carving out time between your more technical coursework to ask big questions about the law. For me, no class in law school did this better than Professor William Wagner’s Law and Literature course.

What casebook can top Franz Kafka’s The Trial in illustrating the absurdity that results when rational communication between lawmaker and citizen breaks down? Or best Charles Dickens’ Bleak House to depict the dangers of a self-serving legal system alienated from those who it’s supposed to serve? I doubt if any other law school course assigns you to read Measure for Measure and ponder, together alongside Shakespeare, the paradoxical marriage of justice and mercy.

But beyond the rare chance to savor rather than abide assigned reading, absorbing the great literary renderings on law helps you understand your role in the larger legal context. It reminded me that what attracted me to the law in the first place was my perception that the legal field melded the theoretical and scholarly aspects of academia, with the immediacy and practicality of professional practice. In short, I wanted to ask the big questions—consider the big picture—while offering a tangible service to my community.

It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture in law school, especially when you study law in the capital of the world’s most powerful country. For better or worse, going to law school in Washington D.C. means studying in the shadow of the most potent law-making bureaucracies. It’s tempting to think a student’s time is better spent learning to practice within the hierarchy, rather than inquiring into the justice of the hierarchy’s decisions. A common conclusion is that the big questions have been asked and answered for you. In this light, inquiries into the justice or prudence of a legal system can seem like naïve thought experiments offering no real practical value.

But the narratives explored in Law and Literature break down this dichotomy. Just as the case method places legal rules in context, the fictional narratives in Law and Literature put the ethical dilemmas of legal practice in context for students. For instance, by charting the arc of protagonist Willie Stark in All the Kings Men—inspired by the true story of former Louisiana governor and U.S. Senator Huey Long—you see the destructive tale of a strong personality gradually corroded by insidious corruption unfolding before a legal and political backdrop. Or when faced with the shrewd and manipulative calculation of the dubious lawyer in Dickens’ Bleak House, you’re invited to ask yourself if you’d retain an ethical character even when nature and circumstance places you in a position of dominance over wealthy clients.

My brief experience practicing law in a small city has shown me that thinking of jurisprudence and legal practice as separate concepts is not only unrealistic, but can leave lawyers unprepared for the human side of law practice. In the political and legal world of most American communities, there is no neat or simple distinction between the two concepts because most clients do not ask questions with neat legal/life distinctions. For instance, when considering a plea bargain, a young criminal defendant doesn’t just want to know the statistical likelihood of a prison sentence should he go to trial. Your client wants to know what prison is like—what effect it will have on him. A good lawyer must give legal advice seen through a humane perspective.

So my advice is this: Use your ample time after the bar exam to determine when to properly file a motion to reconsider if you’re not entirely clear yet. But understand you may not get another chance to read, analyze and discuss among budding legal professionals the great literary works that depict in all shades of humanity the excruciating toll the legal system can exact on the human spirit, and its capacity for sublime justice and mercy. Seize your opportunity to ask the big questions.

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One comment

  1. Law and Lit was by far my favorite class in law school. The Trial still sits on my bookshelf, full of highlights and notes. It has helped me in practice life to understand the confusion our legal system often causes the unfamiliar (I hate to say “unsophisticated”) client.

    Great article, Tim. Hopefully current students will take your advice and sign up!

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