Lets not Kill the Lawyers

The Signing of the Magna Carta (circa 1215) at Runnymede

The Signing of the Magna Carta (c. 1215) at Runnymede

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

William Shakespeare, Henry The Sixth, Part 2 Act 4, scene 2, 71–78

Many years ago, when I was an aficionado of Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, and Ronald Reagan, I was of the opinion that lawyers were a blight upon society. For me, a society without lawyers seemed little short of heaven. But like most utopian schemes, this was simplistic and unrealistic.

I recently watched a speech by Joe Jamail at the Stanford Law School. Joe Jamail is the most successful lawyer in the United States, and perhaps in history. In his speech, Jamail describes the difference between Law as a profession, and Law as a business. He describes the difference between an attorney who is out for himself and his firm, and a lawyer who has the best interests of his client at heart. But most telling is his comparison between physical objects like the Statue of Liberty, which barely lasted a hundred years before having to be rebuilt, and a legal document like the Declaration of Independence, written by a lawyer, which set forth ideas that continue to stand the test of time.

The call to abolish lawyers, or at least place limits on them, is the call of the tyrant, the autocrat, the oligarch. It is the cry of the politician who has been bought and paid for. This is what Shakespeare meant when he put his immortal words in the mouth of Dick the Butcher, who was speaking to one Jack Cade, a rebel who thought that by disturbing law and order, he could become king. Getting rid of the lawyers was key to disturbing civil society, fomenting dissent, and creating the conditions ripe for his own rise to power. In other words, Shakespeare was of the opinion that lawyers maintained stability and justice, something the rebel Jack Cade wished to dispense with.

The rights of persons under the law, as over against the rights of the sovereign to impose arbitrary standards, was elucidated at Runnymede in the Magna Carta of 1215. One of the most important legal rights is contained in Clause 39, which enshrines the right to trial by jury: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” This is followed by Clause 40, which enshrines the principle of equality before the law: “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

The rights and principles elucidated in the Magna Carta formed the basis for grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence, and formed the basis for the United States Constitution. All these rights and principles were first declared, argued over, defined, and written down by lawyers. These same rights and principles are now under attack by an assortment of oligarchs, plutocrats, politicians, and their sycophants as being opposed to efficiency, free markets, and the capitalist system. Exactly the opposite is true — free markets are enabled and enforced by the rule of law. The diminution of the law is an argument not for free market capitalism, but for oligarchy and mercantilism — for the rule of the few, and for state regulation and protection of industry.

”The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers?” No, but perhaps we should shun everyone who thinks this is a good idea.