Law and Conversation

February 18, 2011

Looking for a few good (practicing) lawyer writers

Harrisburg, PA lawyer, booklover, and freelance writer Harvey Freedenberg recently asked me via Twitter whether I could name any practicing lawyers who write about law in the same way that doctors like Richard Selzer, Lewis Thomas, Atul Gawande, and Jerome Groopman write about medicine.

I haven’t read Selzer or Thomas, but I have read Gawande and Groopman, both of whom are not only very fine writers but also full-time practicing physicians.  But why couldn’t I think of any comparable practicing lawyer writers?  Freedenberg suggested Jeffrey Toobin, who’s a very fine writer indeed, but noted that he’s not a currently practicing lawyer.

I can think of practicing lawyers who are very fine writers of fiction–often legal fiction–and practicing lawyers who are very fine writers of legal materials or who blog about issues related to the practice of law, and nonpracticing lawyers who write very good articles about the legal profession.  But I can’t think of any practicing lawyers who have written nonfiction books and articles for the general public about the practice of law comparable to what those practicing doctors have written about the practice of medicine.

Groopman and Gawande seem enormously admirable to me, not only for their unflinching criticism of some common current medical practices, but also for owning up to and honestly writing about mistakes they have personally made in the course of their medical practices.  I know that there are plenty of very thoughtful lawyers who are every bit as concerned with improving the legal profession and the practice of law as those doctors are about improving the medical profession and the practice of medicine, but it strikes me that most practicing lawyers direct their energies into bar association activities toward that end, not to writing books or articles about the practice of law for consumption by the general public.

Readers, why should that be?  Certainly, there are ethical issues such as privilege, which Freedenberg noted as an issue in our exchanges, that lawyers must take care with when they write about the practice of law.  But do those issues–which are also present for doctors–preclude lawyers from writing comparably to Groopman, Gawande, and their fellow doctor-writers?  Are there other factors at play?  Is there a niche that’s waiting to be filled?  Or are Freedenberg and I just overlooking some obvious good answers to his question?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

A while ago I wrote about The Paris Review’s making its interviews with authors available online.  Now, I’m intrigued by the literary magazine’s new advice column, also available online.  The delightful Ramona Koval, host of “The Book Show” on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s Radio National, interviewed editor Lorin Stein, who writes the column, a few days ago.  Stein had some great advice for one reader who wondered which translation of Proust he should read, a question I’ve also been pondering since Scott Moncrieff’s classic translation gave me quite a bit of trouble a couple of years ago.  (Stein’s recommendation:  first read Lydia Davis’s new translation, then go to the most recently revised Moncrieff version.)  Perhaps Mr. Stein would give me some advice on another matter I’ve been struggling with:  which translation to read of Lady Murasaki’s “The Tale of Genji?” Waley, Seidensticker, or the gorgeously illustrated and annotated version by Royall Tyler?  Readers, if you have an opinion, I’d love your advice on that question, too.

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