Saturday, July 7, 2012

Was there a Golden Age for the Legal Profession?

Yesterday I linked to an article by Professor Jim Chen about the state of the legal profession. One of Chen's arguments was that "the contemporary legal profession languishes in the memory of a golden age" even though "there had never been a golden age in the American legal profession."

Blogger-lawyer-jerk Scott Greenfield dissents, arguing that there was indeed a golden age of American lawyering, as proved by the career of his Uncle Dave:

Uncle Dave was old school, even then.  He was the sort of lawyer to wear a tie and waistcoat while mowing the lawn, because that was the way lawyers should comport themselves. He was a lawyer, every day, all day long.  He believed with every fibre of his being that being a lawyer meant he held a trust, a duty, toward others, his clients, the court, his adversaries, the public. The dignity of the profession and his personal integrity was at stake with his every utterance, his every stroke of the pen, his every representation and bit of advice.  
Mr. Greenfield concedes that, even in this golden age, there were problems:
Older lawyers sniped at younger lawyers over minutiae in comparison to the problems being faced today. Wearing too loud a tie. Driving too flashy a car. Refusing to read the advance sheets daily, as if the synopsis in the Law Journal was sufficient.  Slackers.  Of course, it hardly seemed trivial at the time, and thus lawyers railed about their slovenly next generation.  
I had some thoughts in response to this post that, insanely, I decided to share in the comments of Mr. Greenfield's blog, including:

You point out some very superficial problems with the prior regime—such as unbearably oppressive criticism of tie and car choices. But there were bigger problems. For example, some people (women) usually don't wear ties at all! I wonder how many female judges your uncle ever practiced in front of? Or, for that matter, black ones? In fact, the profession was a homogenous mass of white men who largely cared about the same things, which led to nitpicking about stupid things like tie color. 

Mr. Greenfield brushed these and other "deep thoughts" aside as "snarky ignorance." That was kind of hurtful, but it's his blog and he can be mean there if he wants to be. (Not very gentlemanly, though, in my opinion.)

Anyhow, on reflection, I think Mr. Greenfield has a good point if you leave out the stuff about a "golden age" (which is really just distracting). In the past, people like his Uncle Dave personified at least an ideal of what everyone thought a lawyer should be (even if, then as now, most fell short of the ideal). Now lawyers like his Uncle Dave (and they still exist) are thought of as oddities, not ideals, and the consensus ideal of what a lawyer should be is considerably less noble. Perhaps we could recover that ideal without losing anything in the process.

What do you think, Mr. Gillette? Was there a golden age? Should we return to the lost ideal of the noble lawyer, as best personified by your former boss, Judge David Doty? Is this post just snarky ignorance?

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