A Liberal Profession

March 16th, 2013

Lawyer's Wig (Coprinus comatus)

Having devoted my professional career to the practice of law, I have naturally enough developed a certain ambivalence about the value of the legal profession to society.  The law itself, of course, represents one of the great advances in humanity’s development; law as such is a fairly unambiguous good, at least until we collectively develop a sufficient sense of emapthy for and responsibility to each other that we can safely dispense with the use of rules to govern our conduct.  But the legal profession is another thing.  I recently found my doubts about it crystallized in a speech by Stephen Maturin, the fictional nineteenth century physician at the center, with his friend Captain Jack Aubrey, of Patrick O’Brian’s marvelous series of novels.  In The Reverse of the Medal, Maturin tries to shake Jack’s naive faith in the infallibility of the English legal system:

‘As for Gibbon, now’, said Stephen when they were settled by the fire again, ‘I do remember the first lines.  They ran “It is dangerous to entrust the conduct of nations to men who have learned from their profession to consider reason as the instrument of dispute, and to interpret the law according to the dictates of private interest; and the mischief has been felt, even in countries where the practice of the bar may deserve to be considered as a liberal occupation.”  He thought – and he was a very intelligent man, of prodigious reading – that the fall of the Empire was caused at least in part by the prevalence of lawyers.  Men who are accustomed over a long series of years to supposing that whatever can somehow be squared with the law is right – or if not right then allowable – are not useful members of society; and when they reach positions of power in the state they are noxious.  They are people for whom ethics can be summed up by the collected statutes.  Tully, for example, thought himself a good man, though he openly boasted of having deceived the jury in the case of Cluentius; and he was quite as willing to defend Catiline in the first place as he was to attack him in the second.  It is all of a piece throughout; they are men who tend to resign their own conscience to another’s keeping, or to disregard it entirely.  To the question “What are your sentiments when you are asked to defend a man you know to be guilty?” many will reply “I do not know him to be guilty until the judge, who has heard both sides, states that he is guilty.”  This miserable sophistry, which disregards not only epistemology but also the intuitive perception that informs all daily intercourse, is sometimes merely formular, yet I have known men who have so prostituted their intelligence that they believe it.’

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