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Nov 05, 2010

Becoming a lawyer is a process, not an event [Section 1 of 5]

By: Paul Ebeltoft

When I was 13, I asked a well-known local attorney what I should do to become a lawyer. He told me to learn how to type. At the time, I was disappointed. I see now that this wise country lawyer gave me a small nudge down the pathway setting an attainable goal. He counted on me to travel further, to master more, when I was ready.

Today, I empathize with the fellow I so eagerly sought advice from nearly 50 years ago. Still “a work in process” myself, I doubt my ability to answer the questions about becoming a lawyer from bright young people, many my students at Dickinson State University. The more practical ask, “What will help prepare us for law school?” The sophisticated, or the more confident, are hoping that I can reveal those skills that may make a good lawyer great. My international students frequently ask, “What is it like to be a lawyer in the United States?”

Not wanting to disappoint, I have relied on others to begin to answer these questions. I have prepared a reading list. My list contains a variety of books that, in a general way, build on the readings that come before. My list is not entirely original. I have drawn from recommendations in university pre-law regimens, preparation pages from law schools and assorted advice columns on the web. Mainly, I have drawn from my own library.

I have also begun a list of movies that I think are good breaks for young people wading through the reading, or for any of us. Due to space limitations in this column, I will divide my 25 recommended readings and film suggestions into five (5) sections.

I welcome suggestions and comments.

A Suggested Reading List
For People Who Would Like To Become A Lawyer

A. Readable History - Famous Lawyers – Notable Trials

1. Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention
By: Catherine Drinker Bowen

The American Constitutional experiment began one hot summer in Philadelphia. Figuratively, the career of an aspiring lawyer should begin there too. While pundits deride the judicial system with claimed insight of the “founding fathers’ ” intentions, Ms. Bowen’s scholarly but readable book grounds would-be lawyers with solid facts about the times in which the Constitution was born and valuable perspective about those who were there at its birth.

2. John Marshall: A Life in Law
By: Leonard Baker

John Marshall is not the subject of much discussion among lawyers today. He should be. The conflicts of law and policy faced by the Marshall Court are not unlike those facing jurists today. The Marshall Court, much to the chagrin of Thomas Jefferson and Jeffersonian Republicans, helped shape the modern American judicial system. Understanding the Marshall imprint, and being able to compare it to what it may have become if guided by the Jeffersonian ideal, will strongly underpin the development of any aspiring lawyer. Baker is capable of breathing life and energy into what otherwise might be a tedious study.

3. Attorney for the Damned: Clarence Darrow in the Courtroom
By: Arthur Weinberg

This next book vaults the aspiring lawyer into the late 19th and early 20th Centuries by following the life and the cases of American’s first “super-lawyer.” Clarence Darrow’s career in the law, the stuff of legend and film, fairs equally well in fact and print. A precious few advocates are destined to be Darrow-like; but almost everyone seeking a life in the law secretly hopes. Mr. Weinberg shows us that it is a worthy aspiration.

4. The People v. Clarence Darrow
By: Geoffrey Cowan

It will be helpful for an aspiring lawyer to learn that icons of the law are none-the-less human; that lawyers’ motivations can be as complex as the cases they accept; and that lawyers’ judgment is sometimes marred by a life of advocacy. Offered in this list as a contrast to the Weinberg study of Clarence Darrow, Cowan’s premise is that Darrow has had the benefit of good publicists both during his life and after his death. Cowan intends to set the record … or at least part of it … straight.

5. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education And Black America's Struggle for Equality
By: Richard Kluger

The film, Separate But Equal, suggests that the reversal of decades of legal precedent by Brown et al. v. Board of Education et al. was the result of an unpopular decision by a brash NAACP lawyer, the unexpected death of a Chief Justice, a back-room deal, and the political acumen of Earl Warren. This book gives a bigger picture for viewing. Setting the story in apartheid-like conditions only a generation removed from today, Kluger studies the litigation strategy that propelled the cases. He reveals the conditions on the Warren court that enabled the history-changing unanimous decision. Someone hoping for a career in the law could study many great cases and important decisions. Few are as poignant and few are as illustrative of the nobility and the practicality of the process as this.

6. Thurgood Marshall: Justice for All
By: Roger Goldman

Intended as a “delve-deeper” addition to this reading list, this scholarly study takes us into the legal mind of Thurgood Marshall, one of the heroes of the Brown cases, the first black-American Supreme Court Justice and possessor a legal mind that cannot help but engage the reader. This is not an easy read, but is an accessible work for those who would like to learn more about an influential lawyer and jurist of the mid-20th Century.

7. Gideon's Trumpet
By: Anthony Lewis

As instruments of social change, there is no more unlikely candidate than Clarence Earl Gideon. It is a testament to the greatness of the American judicial system, and the worthiness of the law as a career, that his case became a benchmark of criminal jurisprudence. Law schools fail to add flesh and bone to the cases studied. The Lewis book is a chance for a pre-law student to do so enjoyably, not jeopardizing a law school gpa by the diversion. Yet another look at the mid-20th Century Warren Court, the Lewis book introduces a cast of lawyers and judges worthy of study on their own.

8. A Season for Justice: The Life and Times of Civil Rights Lawyer Morris Dees
By: Morris Dees and Steve Fiffer

Historians have over-played the importance of Brown et al. v. Board of Education et al. some suggest. Critics contend that, by 1954, the courts had already handed down important school desegregation decisions and Brown itself fashioned no remedy. That the fight against discrimination is ongoing; that equal justice for all is still a goal to be sought is a lesson of the career of Morris Dees. Dees’ book is not without its literary fault; but it is compelling. The retelling of his fight against the Ku Klux Klan brings law as a crusade to a time with which current students can relate.

10. Gerry Spence: Gunning for Justice
By: Gerry Spence and Anthony Polk

This book is intended to provide contrast with the Darrow offerings discussed earlier. A late 20th Century super-lawyer, Spence has a story to tell and a viewpoint to relate that modernizes, if not improves, perception of the role of lawyers.

11. A Civil Action
By: Jonathan Harr

This book provides a modern contrast to Simple Justice. The quixotic Jan Schlichtmann plays a modern-day Thurgood Marshall. One of his opponents, Jerome Facher, could be likened to Marshall’s nemesis, John Davis. While the case involved only eight plaintiffs with very mixed results, Harr tells a story of litigation that is more real and more like the trench-warfare that today’s trial counsel might face than advocating the proposition that 14th Amendment principals govern all public education.

12. Courting Justice: From NY Yankees v. Major League Baseball to Bush v. Gore
By: David Boies

The 21st Century super-lawyer, David Boies, has had a career perfectly suited to exploring the lawyer’s role in headline news. The book has most of the elements that might attract a student to the law: the lawyer as politician, the lawyer as innovative problem solver, the lawyer as David in the Goliath story, the lawyer as shaper of fortunes, the lawyer as engineer of social change. Missing is the lawyer as a frail human being, striving to make a living, balancing life with the law, and doing the best as can be for a client with limited resources or narrow goals. Those stories apparently do not sell many books.