America is riddled with lawyers and obsessed with law. We have more lawyers per capita than any other nation, and sooner or later we package every important issue of policy, from war to ghetto economics and highway improvement, as an issue of law. We use our courts as temples of political science as well as of justice; our lawyers staff not only courts but legislatures, agencies, boards of directors, school boards, and college presidencies.
There are two books about lawyers and law that I wish someone would write. The first would be what the sociologists call an institutional study, or rather a series of such studies, of the legal profession; if successful, it would out through the lawyers’ own view of themselves and offer some fresh perceptions, some sense of the submerged problems that the profession has missed. The second would be more speculative, a book of sociology which would try to find, in the history or structure of American society, some explanation of our extraordinary obsession with law, and of the shape our law has taken.
Martin Mayer spent five years studying lawyers; he has written a long book, but it is neither of these. His purpose, the dust jacket says, was to make “a report on the law and its practitioners in the United States—from skyscraper suite to store front office, County Court House to Supreme Court.” That may sound like the first book I mentioned, but it is not. Mayer’s book is a string of quotations from hundreds of lawyers on opposite sides of dozens of issues, some shoe-banging editorials showing that the author can take sides, and some old stories about famous lawyers for comic relief. There are few insights, few discoveries, few signs that a critical intelligence has been at work.
Mayer is excellent at interior decoration—he describes the courts, the offices, the case-note factories, and the classrooms, in a way that sometimes goes beyond furniture and gives a sense of the smell and noise and tone of these dark places. He has collected, in one volume, all the legal jokes, epigrams, clichés, anecdotes, myths, and bed-time stories that one would need for a hundred bar association speeches. One must set against these feats, however, several mistakes in legal doctrine, and some foolish adventures into legal philosophy. (One example: “Law is a system of predictions, and predictions (as David Hume pointed out two hundred years ago) must be statistical.” It is not, of course, they need not, and he did not.)
The interest of The Lawyers lies in the light it can shed on more ambitious projects. Surely there is a lesson in it for anyone who wants to write a book of fresh perceptions about the old profession. He will learn nothing very new about lawyers if he allows them—as Mayer apparently did—to frame the questions as well as answer them. Lawyers are professional narcissists; from the first days of law school they are forced to study themselves, their practices, their ethics, their roles…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.