Law and Conversation

January 2, 2012

Looking back on 2011 and forward into 2012

2011 was a great year for reading for me. I focused even more than I have in past years on reading critically and with purpose. That meant I read more books, and better books, than when I’ve read more haphazardly.

I like to keep a running list of the books I read, the better to remember them (which writing about them on this blog also helps me to do). My personal Best Book Read In 2011 was the graphic novel “Watchmen,” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Other books I enjoyed greatly included several by Alexander McCall Smith; Scottish poet Jackie Kay’s memoir, “Red Dust Road;” Suzanne Collins’s YA blockbuster, “The Hunger Games;” and Anthony Trollope’s masterwork, “The Way We Live Now,” which had been on my TBR list for at least a couple of years.

One book I especially enjoyed wasn’t even my idea to read. Knowing of my passion for Laura Ingalls Wilder, an intuitive friend surprised me with a gift at the end of 2011, Kristin Kimball’s “The Dirty Life.” Ever wonder what it was REALLY like for Laura to live with Almanzo and build a life on the farm together? After reading Kimball’s memoir of meeting, moving in with, and marrying her farmer husband, I think I have a pretty good idea (and, like Kimball’s husband, I bet Almanzo and, for that matter, Laura, had smelly armpits, too).

One of my resolutions last year was to read a nice, juicy biography. I had two in mind: Maynard Solomon’s “Beethoven” and Benita Eisler’s “O’Keefe and Stieglitz.” Alas, they’re still sitting on my nightstand, unread. But I kept that resolution by reading another thick biography I’d had for several years: Mary S. Lovell’s “The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family.” Lovell’s book was a good read about an interesting family, but I found myself agreeing with a discerning friend who described it as having “lost its moral compass.” To her, and to me, the author seemed rather too enthralled by the faded glamour of the unrepentant Diana Mitford, in particular, who married Oswald Mosley, an M.P. who became the leader of the British Fascists and, with Diana, was imprisoned for much of World War II because of their open sympathy for Hitler. Scandalous Women has more about the Mitford sisters.

Another aspiration of mine in 2011 was to read a Dickens novel. I’m sorry to say I didn’t keep that one. But in 2012 I hope to make amends by reading both Claire Tomalin’s new biography of Dickens and a Dickens novel I haven’t read before, since both were under our Christmas tree. I’m excited!

I did something new in 2011 that I plan to continue in 2012: I became a guest blogger on The Europa Challenge Blog. It was pure serendipity that I peeked at my Twitter stream one evening and saw Marie’s tweet inviting fans of Europa Editions publications to participate on this fan blog. Having already read several Europa books, I had no hesitation about accepting. Initially, I signed up for the fairly conservative four-book Europa Ami challenge level. But I like a bit of competition, so I pushed myself and surpassed the 7-book Europa Haver level, reading 8 new Europa books in all—which doesn’t count the several I’d read before accepting the challenge. For 2012, Marie has renamed the levels with a wonderful continental café theme. I’m starting out cautiously, signing up for the 4-book Espresso level, but I’m quite confident I’ll be able to reach at least the 6-book Cappuccino mark. As a lawyer, I love finding and thinking about the legal issues in the books I read. In Europa’s books, I’d particularly recommend Alberto Angela’s “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome” for its brief discussion of Roman legal proceedings, Peter Kocan’s “The Treatment and The Cure” and “Fresh Fields” for his depiction of Australia’s treatment of the mentally ill who have committed crimes, and Jane Gardam’s wonderful “Old Filth” and “The Man in the Wooden Hat” for her portrait of a marriage from both spouses’ respective points of view.

What are your New Year’s resolutions?

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July 15, 2011

A Day in the Life of an Ancient Roman Lawyer

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I’ve posted today over on The Europa Challenge Blog on Alberto Angela’s “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome,” a fictional walk through the Eternal City on one day in the year 115 CE, during the reign of the Emperor Trajan. From dawn to dusk, Angela takes us around the city, showing us where the ancient Romans lived and did business with one another, from latrines to the law courts of the Basilica Julia, part of the complex of buildings that made up the Roman Forum. Hope you’ll click on over there to read my post!

Much as I enjoyed Angela’s description of life in ancient Rome, it left me wishing for even more details, particularly about lawyers and the practice of law. He writes of witnesses who traded testimony for money, which I’d definitely like to know more about. If that was a common practice in imperial Rome, how did the judges assess witnesses’ relative credibility and arrive at a good decision? Were some or even many of those witnesses well known to the judges as professional tale-tellers? Did all witnesses expect to be paid for telling the truth? Were the courts an unregulated marketplace where the most golden-tongued witnesses and lawyers were likely to win? Did they function as well as, better than, or not nearly as well as modern courts in dispensing justice? Were there systems for mediating cases outside of court, or for appeals?

Angela’s brief description of Roman lawyers and courts also made me wonder whether any ethical rules for attorneys existed in imperial Rome. He said clients would initially meet their lawyers in the piazza of the Forum and then make followup appointment at lawyers’ homes, but how did lawyers and clients arrive at agreements for representation? Today, at least in the US, ethical rules prohibit lawyers from soliciting business, based on the principle that lawyers shouldn’t go around stirring up disputes. On the other hand, there’s nothing prohibiting an unrepresented person from approaching and hiring a lawyer who happens to be in or outside the courtroom where he’s making his first appearance, as appeared to be happening in Angela’s scenario. Were there formal ethical rules in Ancient Rome? If so, were they similar to today’s rules of professional conduct? Was there a commission that enforced them? Were ancient Roman lawyers ever disciplined or disbarred?

I can imagine that lawyers in imperial Rome, as those today, generally had to focus their practices in certain areas of law instead of trying to handle all types of cases. Was there a distinction between criminal and civil law, or transactional law and litigation? Was there motion practice? What evidentiary rules existed, and what was the standard of proof? How did lawyers know what the law was? Did they have law libraries in their offices? Was there a central law library for lawyers in ancient Rome? Was there a law librarian who would help lawyers find what they needed? Was case law important, and were case files kept and archived? I’ve read that memory played a much more important role in learning in ancient times; how did that affect the practice of law in ancient Rome?

I wondered, too, about ancient Roman lawyers’ business practices. Did they have areas within their homes that were equivalent to today’s law offices, or did they rent space outside their homes to meet with clients and transact legal business? Did they form associations analogous to present-day law firms? Given Angela’s description of Roman homes as generally dark and not terribly pleasant places to spend time, I’m wondering whether Roman lawyers generally transacted their business with clients, witnesses, and opponents in public places, such as the basilica, piazzas, and restaurants. And were certain types of law practice more prestigious than others? Was there a 2nd century equivalent of, say, ERISA practice, or loan workouts, or white collar crime, or family law? To what extent did the concept that injured people should be made whole by those who injured them exist?

Most of all, I’d like to follow one of those lawyers around for a day—say, the attorney Angela describes whose unhappy clients were chasing him down for an explanation after losing their case. Was our man a struggling lawyer living in a dingy no-water walkup on the top floor of a Roman insula, or apartment building, with all sorts of building code violations? He probably wouldn’t have wanted his clients to come to his home, would he—and it probably wouldn’t have been feasible for him to entertain his clientele there, either, would it? So what did he do?

Maybe our lawyer lived in more congenial surroundings. Did he take potential clients out to dinner, or entertain them in his home, or take them to see the bloody spectacles at the Colosseum for fun? Did well-to-do individuals and businesses conduct “beauty contests” to choose their lawyers, as some businesses do today? If so, how did those competitions proceed, and did our man compete?

We’ve probably all learned in school that the public baths were important to ancient Roman society. I’d like more details about that, too. Did the public baths function as health clubs do today, and did they have membership fees for different levels of privileges at their facilities? Did women and girls go? How often? What about slaves—did they ever get to visit the baths? Were there separate days or hours or facilities within the baths for them? Did our lawyer make certain to show up at the baths at prime times and schmooze potential clients, judges, and other lawyers? Did he swim laps and exercise, or just lounge about? Did he engage in whatever was the competition of choice among professional men? Just what was the Roman equivalent of golf, tennis, or racquetball?

I’m also wondering about even more personal details of our lawyer’s life. Was he married? Did his in-laws like him? How did he and his wife happen to meet and marry? Was she the daughter of a lawyer, and did he take over her father’s practice? Did he discuss his cases with her, and did she help him with his strategy and arguments? Did they push their sons into legal careers, and arrange for their daughters to marry lawyers? How did they relate to their slaves? Did they ever think or talk about the morality of owning other human beings, or about tormenting and slaughtering animals and people for fun, or question other aspects of their daily lives?

Angela provides fascinating insights into all aspects of imperial Roman life, so that I can imagine possible answers to many of these questions. But his book is an overview of Roman life and culture, not the story of any individual Roman. In the absence of an imperial Roman Harvey Pekar, the Cleveland file clerk who achieved immortality in his graphic novels detailing his everyday life from the 1980s through the early 2000s, I’d be thrilled to see Angela or another historian-storyteller follow up “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome” with a series that might begin with “A Day in the Life of an Ancient Roman Lawyer.”

July 6, 2011

3 Europa Editions books to try

Earlier this week I posted about becoming one of  the participants on The Europa Challenge Blog, a fan blog dedicated to encouraging reading and reviewing the contemporary books by mostly European writers published by Europa Editions. I’ve set my sights on achieving the challenge’s Europa Ami level by reading four Europa books by the end of the year, but, since I’ve already read several more from the publisher, I’m planning on posting about those, too.

As I noted in my introductory post over on the challenge blog, I tend to forget the details of books once I’ve read them, so posting about those I read in the last couple of years will require some rereading. That’s OK: one of the many reasons I started this blog was to keep better track of and better remember what I’ve read.

Here are three suggestions for Europa reading:

1) The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery. If there’s one book that hooked me and others on Europa Editions and put the publisher on the map, it’s this one. It was a bestseller in Europe and a bestseller in the US, translated from the original French into English and other languages. The cover is charming, and so is the story.

2) A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome, by Alberto Angela. A paleontologist who also hosts popular science television shows in Italy, Angela takes the reader on a fictional walk through the Eternal City on a day during the reign of the Emperor Trajan, almost two thousand years ago.

3) The Woman with the Bouquet, by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. These tightly crafted short stories mix dreams with reality.

Have you read any books published by Europa Editions? Did you like them? Have you ever participated on a fan blog?

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