The Law, Rumpole, and me

I used to practice law, some years back. Then printer's ink got in my veins, and I drifted into news-papering. My apostasy probably was foreshadowed by my choice of professional heroes. These were not such giants of the bar as Edward Bennett Williams or F. Lee Bailey. Instead, they were men like Louis Auchincloss and John Mortimer, lawyers who are best known as writers.

Mortimer, an all-around man of letters who once described himself as the best English playwright ever to defend a murderer in a London court, is the creator of Horace Rumpole, ``Rumpole of the Bailey,'' the wily, curmudgeonly, Shakespeare-spouting barrister who usually manages to get his clients out of the dock.

Whether by companioning with Mor-timer's pages or in some other way, I quietly took on some Rumpolian mannerisms.

Take the courthouse. It was, in my mind, ``the Old Bailey'' -- never mind that my American business clients bore little resemblance to the cutthroats whose fates were decided over the centuries in the famous criminal court. (Exception: On days when I expected an unfavorable ruling, the court became the ``Court of Chancery,'' and I would recall dolefully the opening pages of ``Bleak House.'') I silently addressed the judges as ``M'Lord,'' although ``Your Honor'' always issued from my mouth.

The sleek skyscraper where I worked was, naturally, the ``Inns of Court,'' and my small office, undistinguishable from the dozens of others occupied by the firm's junior lawyers, was mentally designated my ``chambers.''

No detail of my working life was immune from the treatment. I called those too-frequent occasions when midday found me at my desk munching a corned beef sandwich while poring over indentures or deeds of trust, ``lunching at my club.''

These were affectations, of course, and the wryness never left my inaudible voice. But they did no harm, and maybe even did me some good, like the old Punch caricatures of bewigged barristers and the reproductions of Daumier's gesticulating French avocats that adorned my office walls.

Looking back, I can see that the importance of these small anachronisms was that they deflected my irony from a much larger anachronism in my career. Which was my feelings about the Law. Those feelings were, I fear, rather too sentimental for a profession that disdains sentiment. Because I could not help myself, I ringed my secret about with gentle sarcasm.

By the Law (the definite article and capital letter are obligatory, to my way of thinking), I do not mean the fact-gathering, document-drafting, and mixing-it-up in the courtroom that fill lawyers' days.

The Law -- referring especially to the English and American common law -- is a set of ideals, at once simple and infinitely complex, about the relationships of man to man, man to property, and man to the state, and about the ways those relationships are to be agreed upon.

It was in part the antiquity of the Law that captivated me. I marveled that so many of the principles lawyers apply and procedures they follow have descended from long before Magna Charta: have, indeed, an ancestry that ultimately vanishes into the trackless mists of Anglo-Saxon history.

I liked, too, the Law's intellectualism, its close reasoning and filigree logic. Paradoxically, I admired also the Law's pliancy, the adaptability that kept it from growing rigid or outmoded, achieved -- when logic mustn't be offended -- by artificial constructs, ``legal fictions,'' that made the calculus come out right.

Not least, I loved the language of the Law. The Latin phrases pleased me: terms like mens rea and res ipsa lo-quitur, still used by English-speaking lawyers but evidence of the Law's ancient lineage. And I liked to roll around in my mind other words the Law had appropriated from different times and tongues -- Old English, Norman, Scandinavian words, many of them still redolent of feudalism and the Middle Ages.

I relished even those elements of ``legalese'' that so irritate some people, its circumlocutions and seeming redundancies. (How many times did I write a contract with those immemorial cadences, ``Seller hereby sells, assigns, transfers, and conveys all his right, title, and interest in and to said property, now held or hereinafter acquired, to Buyer . . .''?)

It isn't lawyerly self-importance or priestcraft that has produced such language, but rather an appreciation for nuance and fine distinctions. Fine distinctions are what have given lawyers a reputation for sharp practice. But they also are what have given the common law its flexibility, and therefore its humanity. Justice is found in rules; humane justice resides in the thin interstices between rules.

Most of all, though, I loved the Law for its improbability. How remarkable it often seemed to me that human beings -- that prideful, reaching, contentious race -- should submit themselves to the rule of Law. The Law is not always convenient.

Yet much of humankind, whether by moral intuition or bruising experience, has come to accept the need for a partial surrender of individual prerogative.

I was not so unworldly as to think that justice is unfailingly the outcome of the Law. But neither could worldly cynicism move me from the conviction that lawyers toil in the service of an ideal whose end is justice, and which, against the odds, has struck a teetering but enduring balance between liberty and order, where the human spirit flourishes.

I no longer offer my services to clients, but I prefer to think I've never left the Law. My law school diploma and certificates of bar memberships hang in a study at home. Sometimes I glance proudly at them, and at a cedar roofing shingle, a gift from some friends long ago, on which is engraved ``James Andrews, Esq.''

But then I catch myself and grumble, Rumpole-like.

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