Review: “The Good Lawyer”

Review: "The Good Lawyer"

First there was “The Happy Lawyer”, now it is “The Good Lawyer”, looking at the dissatisfaction that appears to be consuming lawyers during these dark days for the profession.

WSJ’s David Lat reviews “The Good Lawyer”, finding that the book deals effectively with the despondency in the law jobs market and “crushing” education debt by being what Lat describes as simply “more practical”

His review:

What does it mean to be a good lawyer? One is tempted to respond by quoting Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quip about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” But that wouldn’t be terribly illuminating, particularly during a period of such turmoil and transformation for the legal profession, with lawyers chasing after scarce jobs and firms fighting for limited clients. As Douglas Linder and Nancy Levit note in their new book, over a third of all law-school graduates cannot find work requiring bar passage, and median starting salaries for lawyers fell by 15% from 2009 to 2012.

A follow-up to Mr. Linder and Ms. Levit’s 2010 book, “The Happy Lawyer,” which explored widespread dissatisfaction among attorneys, “The Good Lawyer” takes up this critical question. Inspired by the elusive goodness called “Quality” that Robert Pirsig explored in his philosophical novel “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (1974), the authors argue that this same value is the key to being a good lawyer. They identify various lowercase “q” qualities that make up Quality, such as empathy, courage and willpower, and devote one chapter to each of these attributes and six others.

Mr. Linder and Ms. Levit, both law professors at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, take a pleasingly eclectic approach. Turning to history, they survey the careers of famous lawyers, like Abraham Lincoln and Clarence Darrow, as well as less heralded advocates, such as a Justice Department lawyer who showed courage in crusading for civil rights or a public defender in a small Minnesota town who showed integrity in representing his indigent clients. In the chapter on how “the good lawyer values others in the legal community,” the authors cite David Boies and Ted Olson, lawyers from opposite sides of the political aisle who worked together championing gay marriage in the courts, as models of civility. “Friendships like that between Ted Olson and David Boies give us hope that the political differences that separate us can be overcome,” they write.

The authors also mine psychological experiments for lessons about the practice of law. In discussing the virtue of willpower, for example, they consider a study of Israeli parole boards that tracked how grants or denials of parole varied by time of day. Researchers found that prisoners who appeared before the board early in the day had their requests granted at a much higher percentage than prisoners who appeared late in the day, when the board was tired and hungry. In other words, depleting willpower can make people less likely to make potentially risky decisions. One conclusion: “The lesson here is if you want a bold ruling from a judge, make sure he or she is operating on a full stomach.”

Review: "The Good Lawyer"

By Douglas O. Linder and Nancy Levit
(Oxford, 330 pages, $24.95)

“The Good Lawyer” ranges over a large amount of territory, addressing numerous issues relevant to modern lawyers—stress and anxiety, incivility within the bar, the tension between zealous advocacy and the larger social good. But the authors don’t linger on any one subject for very long.

This makes for brisk and lively reading but forestalls the development of a more comprehensive argument. If the book were a law-school exam response, it would receive a high grade; exams are all about “issue spotting,” swiftly and thoroughly identifying relevant considerations and concerns. But if the book were a law-school paper, which requires a clearly articulated thesis supported by in-depth discussion, it would fall short.

For a book about the practice of law, “The Good Lawyer” could benefit from being more, well, practical. Sometimes the authors give a piece of advice, acknowledge the difficulty of following that advice in the real world, then fail to explain how the real-world obstacles can be overcome.

For example, they urge lawyers to have “deep moral conversations” with their clients, recognize that large law firms today “are less likely to allow lawyer and client to build a history that encourages and enlightens a true moral conversation,” then offer no suggestions for creating that history in a challenging environment.

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