Lawyers as Pillars of Justice
SEPTEMBER 29, 2017
OF ALL THE MYRIAD jokes and epithets hurled at lawyers, the most poignant comes from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2, because it is so commonly misunderstood: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
While often employed as an insult, Shakespeare meant it as the highest compliment. The line is spoken by Dick the Butcher, a follower of the rebel leader Jack Cade, both of whom knew that the lawyers were the guardians of law and justice in society and thus the greatest threat to their criminal undertakings.
Owen Fiss, in his book Pillars of Justice: Lawyers and the Liberal Tradition, chronicles the contributions of 13 eminent lawyers, judges, and law professors who have stood as bulwarks against the Dicks and Jacks of society — the forces of injustice, inequality, and racism during the past half century. A Yale law professor, Fiss tells us that the goal of his book is “to inspire and instruct,” and indeed it does. However, it must be noted that the title of the book is deceptive.
Pillars of Justice is in fact an autobiography. What connects Fiss’s 13 subjects is that he knew them. They are his friends, colleagues, mentors, and former students. Rather than sharing a particular ideology (they don’t), each played a role in Fiss’s life in the law. And what a charmed life it has been! He has every reason to be proud of it, and it is simultaneously modest and boastful that he chooses to tell his story in this way.
Unfortunately, Fiss’s privilege and security have robbed him of passion. He remains ensconced in his ivory tower at Yale Law School (to which this book is also a love letter) dreaming of a return to the “golden age” of the law, which he defines as the years of the Warren Court beginning with the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Dorothy Wolpert is a founding member of Bird Marella Law Firm whose practice includes trial experience in a wide range of cases including copyright infringement, environmental disputes, legal malpractice, probate matters, and entertainment cases.