The books all lawyers should read. Part One: The Good

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that you can tell an awful lot about a person by their bookshelves. Indeed, as the inimitably moustachioed John Waters once said, “If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t so much as give them a chaste kiss on the cheek*.”

But what of the lawyer’s library? Embattled on all sides with bundles and briefs, does the Modern Solicitor really have time for the novel?

Yes, we say: for to abandon the written word is to abandon hope. From the noble classics to contemporary thrillers, and from works of genius to instructively appalling prose, all books have the potential to enlighten and entertain. And so, in three parts, we bring you our suggestions for the lawyer’s library: the Good, the Not-bad, and the Ugly.

First off, the Good.

Bleak House, Charles Dickens (1853)

The legal novel to end all legal novels, Bleak House may be sombre of name, but it gave rise to truly one of the great jokes of our time: “Jarndyce and Jarndyce walk into a bar, and the barman says ‘why the long case?’”

The novel depicts the most famous trial in all literature. Jarndyce v. Jarndyce is ‘a scarecrow of a suit’ which has already dragged on for several generations before page 1. The case eventually ends in hilarity as it is discovered the entire estate has been swallowed up in legal costs.

The Trial, Franz Kafka (1925)

There are few novelists who confer an eponymous adjective on the language, but equally few will be those lawyers who have not deplored some pointless procedure as ‘Kafkaesque’.

In The Trial, Josef K finds himself arrested for who-knows-what by who-knows-whom. There ensues a darkly comic rigmarole of pointless appointments and courts not in session, of faceless bureaucrats and layers of secrecy, and of no-one at any point appearing to be entirely sure what the purpose is of any of it. A novel which will speak deeply to anyone who has ever become lost in a warren of regulatory procedure.

Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)

Lawyer Jonathan Harker’s illustrious Eastern European count is the sinister client to end all sinister clients. Tasked with nothing more than finalising the paperwork on a sale of property, Harker finds himself embroiled in a thrillingly Gothic adventure of which dodging a supernatural pack of wolves is merely the precursor.

There may be certain firms in Whitby whose lawyers are given to white cotton nightgowns and pallid makeup, but most of us will be grateful to have been spared the sight of a client crawling bat-like down the dripping walls of a Transylvanian castle.

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (1859)

The character of Sydney Carton has had a certain kind of woman swooning into the bookshelves for 150 years. A young, handsome, dissolute barrister embittered by the marriage of the woman he loves to a worthier man, he devotes himself to self-improvement in the hope of gaining her respect.

If the self-improvement took the form of a mindfulness course and the required 5-a-day it would not be much of a plot: happily the French Revolution steps in, enabling Carton to sacrifice himself at the guillotine, though not before clutching the hand of a doomed French maid and promising to be her friend. The Dickens novel for those who don’t do Dickens.

In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (1965)

Capote’s chillingly measured account of a farmhouse slaughter ushered in the true-crime genre. Relying on his remarkable powers of recall, Capote interviewed all those involved, making no notes but dashing home from the small town where the murders took place to write up conversations from memory (at this point a thousand lawyers itch to discredit his testimony).

He frequently visited the two murderers – indeed, there were dark  rumours of his having had a relationship with one of them, Perry Smith. The book was not finally completed until after the killers were executed. A work which inspired generations of ardent criminal lawyers.

Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville (1853)

If a reader is to earn the respect of his companions, he must read at least one book likely to have passed others by. Herman Melville, you may say: why of course, we have all read Moby-Dick: but tell me – have you read Bartleby?

An odd little story, Bartleby tells of a lawyer’s clerk who does nothing. Just as we all have often dreamed, he resists all attempts on the part of his employers to rouse him to action by turning away and murmuring “I would prefer not to.” He does not end well – but at least he was not overworked.

Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler (1940)

Koestler’s novel is an allegorical tale in which the USSR is never named, but ever-present. It draws on the 1938 Moscow Show Trials, in which Stalin eliminated potential naysayers from every level of the Communist Party by dubious legal means. A dark hymn to the value of a just and transparent legal system. Earn extra pretension points by using only its German name, Sonnenfinsternis.

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866)

A book which does precisely what it says on the tin, Dostoyevsky’s greatest novel is murder from the inside out.

Dangerously intelligent student Raskolnikov resolves to murder his engagingly ghastly landlady for her money, partly because he is impoverished, and partly to test his theory that some are above the petty considerations of ordinary morality.

The scene in which he (SPOILER ALERT) stoves the old bat’s head in with an axe is startling precisely because the reader has been so absorbed into his mind and motives. There ensues several hundred pages of Raskolnikov being dogged by his conscience and the law, before finally confessing and being sent to Siberia.

One for the criminal lawyer who’s often wondered: “Whatever made you do it?”

Old Filth, Jane Gardam (1994)

Gardam’s tragicomic masterpiece will make you think twice about those old dinosaurs occasionally spotted lurching across Fountain Court. It tells of the ailing Judge Sir Edward Feathers, a child of the Raj and not at home anywhere.

Supposed to have coined the saying “FILTH: Failed in London? Try Hong Kong”, Feathers embodies a lost Empire which is rarely mourned and almost forgotten. The novel’s epigram is a line from Charles Lamb: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.” A book to be avoided if you are feeling even faintly despondent.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1960)

There are some novels which you are required to read if you are to continue to be considered a sane and reasonable human being. Harper Lee’s only novel is one such book.

Lawyer Atticus Finch is a character of almost divine integrity, pursuing truth and justice in a culture of ingrained racism, saved from aggravating piety by an iconic scene in which he tosses a ball across the courtroom to discredit false evidence against his client.

Incidentally, there are rumours that the book was actually written by JD Salinger – a court case in waiting, if ever there was one. SP

*Quote edited to spare our readers’ blushes.

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