I love books. I used to read all the time. Then I had children. At home, there is at least one book in every room that in theory I am in the middle of reading. Unfortunately, I never finish any of them, even books I read to my kids. A few years ago, I fell asleep while reading to my three-year-old daughter. According to my wife, my daughter yelled “Mommy, Daddy did it again!” Nothing changes. I have another three-year-old, and I can’t seem to finish the books he asks me to read to him.
Things are not much better in the office. When you read (and write) for a living, as we do, there never seems time to get to everything. In my office, I have my share of law books, rule books, and a growing collection of unread legal articles, cases, and summaries that I for some reason save on the mistaken idea that at some point I will have time to read them.
There are three books in my office that you might not expect to find there. One is entitled Cuss Control, the Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing, which was given to me by a law partner when my first child was born twelve years ago. Those of you who know me well know it remains unopened.
A second is a dictionary of Wit and Humor, which I peruse regularly. I do not know if I do this for a laugh or because you can pick it up, read a quote or two, put it down, and not feel guilty about not having finished the book. It certainly helps remind me of what former Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Aurel Kelly called the “Eleventh Commandment” which is “Do Not Take Thyself Too Seriously.” My favorite quotes are from Churchill (“A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject”); Joseph Heller (“When I read something saying I’ve not done anything as good as Catch-22, I’m tempted to reply, ‘Who has?’”); and Mark Twain (“I refused to attend his funeral, but I wrote a very nice letter explaining that I approved of it”).
On the law, I offer the following: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (“Lawyers spend a great deal of their time shoveling smoke”); H.L. Mencken (“Courtroom: a place where Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot would be equals, with the betting odds in favor of Judas”); Disraeli (“A jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer”); Cicero (“When your argument has little or no substance, abuse your opponent”); and Oliver North (“I’m trusting in the Lord and a good lawyer”).
The third book is one I actually have read. Believe it or not, it is a book of poetry. The book is called The Lawyer’s Alcove: Poems by the Lawyer, for the Lawyer and about the Lawyer. It was published in 1900. I bought it at a used bookstore about twenty years ago and it sat around unread until recently. Read The Lawyer’s Alcove and you will conclude as I have, that with regard to the practice of law nothing changes. Two of the more interesting poems are “Advice to a Young Lawyer” and “A Client to His Lawyer.”
“Advice to a Young Lawyer” is a poem by Joseph Story. It begins as follows:
Be brief, be pointed; let your matter stand
Lucid in order, solid, and at hand;
Spend not your words on trifles, but condense;
Strike with the mass of thought, not drops of sense;
Press to the close with vigor, once begun,
And leave (how hard the task!), leave off, when done.
The poem goes on for two-and-one-half pages; proving that experienced lawyers would do well to follow the advice they readily give to others – especially about brevity.
Finally, “A Client to His Lawyer,” reminds us that we should stick to the point (assuming you have one) – something you can easily lose sight of if you are writing a brief (or an article), on the night before it is due. Here is the poem.
My cause concerns nor battery, nor treason;
I sue my neighbor for this only reason,
That late three sheep of mine to pound he drove;
This is the point the court would have you prove:
Concerning the Magna Charta you run on,
Any all the perjuries of old King John;
Then of the Edwards and Black Prince you rant,
And talk of John o’ Stiles, and John o’ Gaunt;
With voice and hand a mighty pother keep:
— Now, pray, dear sir, one word about the sheep.
Martial’s Epigrams, Translated by Hay.
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