Michael Krauss is a law professor at George Mason University School of Law.
As a professor of law, I am naturally biased in favor of my profession. Notwithstanding the naysayers, law students and lawyers commit to the pursuit of justice against obstacles that yield only to the keenest and, one hopes, most ethical minds.
Yet the study of law is in large part a matter of reading.
Lots of reading.
But not all legal reading need be as dry as a prospectus or as weighty as a Supreme Court ruling. Much of the law can be absorbed through great literature and thoughtful nonfiction. Indeed, I suggest that newly minted law students spend the summer before their classes begin with the following nine works (roughly one a week) as preparation for entering what remains the noblest of professions.
Whether you’re a soon-to-be law student or a citizen interested in better understanding our justice system, you could do worse than to spend this summer reading these books. Individually each work is excellent. Collectively they constitute an overview of the values and challenges of the legal profession.
1. Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood,” 1966. Capote’s masterful account of the 1959 murders of Herbert Clutter and his family in Holcomb, Kan., “In Cold Blood” is a study in evil. It is also a provocative examination of our criminal justice system and capital punishment.
2. Brooke Goldstein and Aaron Eitan Meyer, “Lawfare: The War Against Free Speech,” 2011. “Lawfare,” the use of litigation as a weapon to silence and punish an opponent, is a significant challenge to free speech and rule of law today. Bad lawyers created lawfare; good lawyers must combat this subversion of the goals of our profession.
3. Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” 1960. Read this high school favorite again, and this time focus on the jurists: the judge, the prosecutor and defense attorney Atticus Finch himself. Did Atticus react ethically to the racism of the system? How should you behave, as a lawyer, when presented with a case of flagrant injustice?
4. Karl N. Llewellyn, “The Bramble Bush,” 1930. This collection of lectures was delivered to the entering class at Columbia Law School in 1929. It is partly a pedagogical case-briefing primer, partly a broadly jurisprudential analysis of the concept of law. In the words of my law school teacher Grant Gilmore, “They are all informed with Llewellyn’s infectiously exciting and only occasionally irritating personality. They are alive with the buoyant optimism which their author felt as he stood, quite consciously, at a decisive turning point in American legal thought and happily surveyed the future.”
5. Herman Melville, “Billy Budd, Sailor,” 1924. This novella, published posthumously, is a magnificent examination of the role of a judge. Is “judicial restraint” possible? Is it advisable? What is the relation between justice and adjudication? This short read (about a drumhead court-martial at sea) is a masterpiece on legal interpretation.
6. Publius, “The Federalist Papers,” 1787-1788. “Publius” — in reality Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay — published 85 short essays promoting the ratification of the proposed Constitution of the new United States. These philosophical gems today form the bedrock of the American republic.
7. Patrick J. Schiltz, “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession,” Vanderbilt Law Review, Volume 52, 1999. Let this be the first law review article you ever read. Schiltz, today a U.S. district judge, succinctly lays out the promise and perils of our profession. Read it now, before you start law school, to achieve the former and avoid the latter.
8. B.F. Skinner, “Walden Two,” 1948. Politicians, many of them lawyers, are vulnerable to the hubristic belief that additional laws will mold people to do the right thing. Skinner’s novel depicts a utopia where citizens, lacking free will, happily respond to government-created incentives and never commit evil deeds. “Walden Two” is, I think, best seen as dystopia — a scary description of the premises of social-legal planning.
9. Barry Werth, “Damages,” 1998. This superb journalistic effort describes a tragedy that morphed into what was then the biggest medical malpractice settlement in the history of Connecticut. Werth’s masterful presentation shows us tort law in action, as seen in practice and from both plaintiffs’ and defendants’ perspectives.
Future law students, I understand that this list may seem like a tall order given the many law school prep books you might feel pressured to purchase. Yet I am confident that your summer is much better spent exercising your intellect rather than mapping the minutiae of law school culture.
You’ve gotten to yes — you’re going to law school. So relax and hit the beach, but bring some good books with you. You might even enjoy yourself.