Some of our greatest writers have perpetuated a negative image of the legal profession. “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers,” William Shakespeare famously writes in Henry The Sixth, Part II. Or how about this from Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge from The Devil’s Thoughts (1835):
He saw a lawyer killing a viper
On a dung hill hard by his own stable;
And the devil smiled, for it put him in mind
Of Cain and his brother Abel.
In 1975, Bob Dylan’s Hurricane railed against the 1967 conviction of middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter for, in Dylan’s words, “something that he never done”—a triple murder in a Paterson, New Jersey bar. The song’s lyrics target the lawyers: the judge “made Rubin's witnesses drunkards from the slums;” the district attorney prosecuted the crime without evidence.
And then there are the “lawyer jokes”–propagated by writers of sorts—that celebrate the fatal crash of a bus full of lawyers while bemoaning the fact that two seats were empty, equate female lawyers to pit bulls with lipstick, compare attorneys unfavorably to leeches, and posit that an apple and a lawyer are alike because both look good hanging from a tree.
An Internet search for writer jokes, on the other hand, reveals gags about enslaved writers pounding out manuscripts 24/7 in both heaven and hell, the only difference being that in heaven they get published; about a writer who celebrates his agent’s rare voicemail message though his house has burned to the ground; and about how publishers differ from terrorists because you can negotiate with terrorists.
In contemporary folk humor, the lawyer is a predator, the writer a victim.
Does this mean that writers serve society better than lawyers? Certainly there are many attorneys who bring discredit to the legal profession. But writers aren’t automatically better people, as the tale of Jack Henry Abbott shows. While in prison for armed robbery and the killing of another inmate, Abbott wrote the critically acclaimed In the Belly of the Beast, consisting of letters to author Norman Mailer. Mailer helped Abbott win parole. But six weeks after his release, Abbot killed a man for literally looking at him the wrong way and was sent back to prison. Abbot was a good writer and a bad person; Mailer was a great writer with bad judgment.
So why are writers held in high esteem and lawyers reviled? I’d suggest that it’s precisely because lawyers are more critical to the day-to-day workings of society. As Winston Churchill said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.” In the Anglo-American adversarial justice system, the attorney’s charge is to stand up for something and someone. And, the relationship that the individual has with attorneys is personal—at some time in their lives, most people will interact with an attorney, whether through fender-bender, divorce, death, or a more complex legal problem. Personal relationships foster conflict. Both parties to a lawsuit invariably feel that justice demands that they win, which means that when the case is over, the winner believes that her lawyer merely served the inevitable outcome, while the loser feels that his lawyer let him down. Disappointment and anger endure longer than gratitude. And of course, win or lose, both parties dislike the opposing counsel.
The relationship between author and reader is, in contrast, detached and solely in the reader’s hands. If you don’t like what an author says, you might get angry, but you can put the book down and go on about your business. While litigants and criminal defendants are at the mercy of the system, readers are omnipotent, and so have no reason to hate.
Dylan’s song Hurricane provides an example where an artist seeks to influence the legal system. As Wikipedia describes the Rubin Carter case, on June 17, 1966, at approximately 2:30 a.m., two African-American males carrying a handgun and a shotgun entered a bar and grill in Paterson, New Jersey and started shooting. The bartender and a customer were killed instantly, and a second customer died a month later, having been shot in the throat, stomach, intestine, spleen and left lung. A third customer survived the attack, despite a gunshot wound to the head that cost him the sight in one eye. Neither witness identified Rubin Carter as a perpetrator. Based on questionable evidence, Carter was tried, convicted, granted a new trial after appeal, and convicted again. This second conviction stood up on appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court. After nearly twenty years in prison, Carter was finally freed in 1985 after a federal court on habeas corpus found that the prosecution had been “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.”
The song Hurricane, released in 1975, called the trial “a pig-circus,” questioned the judge’s objectivity, and charged the all-white jury with racism. Yet while the song is a wonderful work of art—the pulsing electric violin riffs sound surprisingly contemporary, and Dylan’s indictment of racism and injustice is raw and emotional—it didn’t get Carter released. Evidently most of the justices on the New Jersey Supreme Court weren’t Dylan fans, because years after song came out, a majority affirmed Carter’s second conviction. Carter got out of prison only because of the efforts of his attorneys and the reasoned decision of a federal judge—all lawyers.
None of this is to say, of course, that writers and artists don’t matter. The best art can entertain, edify, inspire, and even change people’s lives on a mass scale. But let’s not forget that in a free society, lawyers keep ordinary citizens from trying to rip out each other’s throats—and take the heat for doing so.
Lawyer devil image from 123rf.com; Crane's grave from Tony Fischer
Robert Rotstein, author of the upcoming legal thriller Corrupt Practices, is a Los Angeles-based entertainment attorney and law professor.