Lawyers in Literature

Last year, I went to a lecture by a chap who’d come down from a Scottish university to talk about law and literature – there is actually a Law and Literature movement – and really, by the end of the lecture, what I mostly wanted to say to him was, “You jammy devil, you, you ought to try looking at the rep pharmacists have in literature.”

As a pharmacist, I do tend to take notice of whenever there’s a pharmacist character on TV, in a film or in a book. And I’m not going to talk about it here. It’s just too painful.

Lawyers, on the other hand, get a really good press.

In Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2 (Act 4, Scene 2), Dick says: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

How is this a good press? Well, think about it… Lawyers as a class have obviously made enough of a difference either to Dick personally or society in general for him to want to kill them all. He may not like them (to put it mildly) but he isn’t indifferent. In fact, they arouse such strong feelings that he is advocating wholesale extermination.

At the other end of the scale, in the film version of John Grisham’s The Firm, the lawyers are the good guys (well, good guy) and the bad guys. New law graduate Mitch McDeere goes up against a whole firm of lawyers (Bendini, Lambert and Locke) who are in the pay of the Mob – and he wins. He comes up with a scheme to have all the lawyers at the firm indicted for mail fraud, and he says to the FBI agent who had wanted him to steal the firm’s files so that the FBI could arrest the firm’s mobster clients, that the Mob’s lawyers are a legitimate and valuable target: “Without the firm, the only way the Moroltos can launder money is in a washing machine.”

On one side, the firm are helping the Mafia get away with their crimes; on the other, Mitch McDeere brings down the lawyers in order to bring down the Mob. In The Firm, the mobsters aren’t the true villains – they are just doing what mobsters do. The real villains of the piece are the lawyers of Bendini, Lambert and Locke, who have not only committed crimes but have betrayed the ideals of their profession and, by extension, the whole of society which relies on the rule of law for its cohesion and stability. Lawyers are supposed to be guides and guardians of the law, and the lawyers of Bendini, Lambert and Locke betrayed this duty too. Mitch McDeere, on the other hand, is the hero who goes up against the monster, and defeats it – but at great personal cost. He has defended the law (and, admittedly, himself), but at the cost of his career as a highly-paid tax lawyer. At the end of the film, he is off back to Boston to set up his own firm, because he knows that after the collapse of Bendini, Lambert and Locke, no other law firm will have him.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird we see the lawyer from another angle. Scout Finch’s father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer who agrees to defend a poor black man (Tom Robinson) against a rape accusation by a white woman and her father. Atticus proves that the woman and her father were lying, and the woman was not raped – in fact, she was the one making the sexual advances. However, despite Atticus’s efforts, the jury convicts Tom. Here again, the lawyer is the hero – the champion of justice and defender of the weak and downtrodden. When the jury gives its ‘guilty’ verdict, in defiance of the evidence, we feel betrayed, not only on behalf of Tom (who is probably going to be hanged), but on behalf of Atticus. Atticus, here, is the Champion of Good, and the courtroom is his battleground. Good should triumph over Evil – but this time, Evil (in the persons of the bigoted jury) wins.

So in literature, there are plenty of lawyers. Sometimes they’re heroes and sometimes they’re villains, but they are almost never neutral. As a class, lawyers hold power: the power to defend or the power to hurt, but always the power to effect change – and when it comes to having a good press, what could be better than that?


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