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Jarndyce Vs. Jarndyce

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My day job involves interaction with lawyers and groups of lawyers. Sometimes I instruct them; sometimes they instruct me; sometimes we just muddle through and no one is instructed. Over the years a few of these lawyers have become friends. They are as far as it goes decent human beings and I hope they would say the same thing about me.

However (you knew this was coming), they share a common linguistic or communication tick, which is prefacing every statement with "speaking as a lawyer" or "thinking as a lawyer" with the understanding that by sprinkling the preface here and there, special weight is added to whatever it is that they are saying.

I used to ask these lawyers as to how I, as a non-lawyer, should interpret these remarks. Was I to assume that I could not understand what he was about to say, or what she had said, because of my non-lawyer status? Or would he or she explain, if he could, in non-legal terms, what he had said, so that I might understand what he had said? Sometimes, I would ask how he thought differently as a lawyer than he did when he shifted into his non-lawyer mind, and would he tell me when he made the shift so that I could pay special attention? Needless to say, I no longer ask these questions.

Bleak House, Charles Dickens' finest novel, has myriad plots and subplots, the foremost of these being the absurdity of a legal case (Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce) that seems to have no purpose but to line the pockets of lawyers. The wards of court in the case are Richard Carstone and Ada Clare who live with their relative the philanthropic John Jarndyce. Initially the novel concerns Richard and Clare's love for on another but the lawsuit, of course, is preeminent.

The novel's heroine is Esther Summerson, an orphan, who also goes to live with Jarndyce, and narrates much of the novel. Other themes of the book concern Sir Leicester Dedlock and his beautiful wife who hides a shocking secret about an illegitimate child and a long lost love. The machinations of her search for the latter bring her to a grave where she will later die in terrible circumstances brought about by the pursuit of her old lover. Believe me, this is pretty hot stuff.

In its time Bleak House was not very popular despite its panoply of interesting characters. Today, critics generally see it as one of Dickens' best books, never mind its verbosity and mind numbing complexity. Mark Richards, a lawyer and long-standing member of a book club I belong to, has expressed the wish that Bleak House be required reading for law school students. Why, I inquire?

"Well, speaking as a lawyer..." Mark begins. Since Mark is a friend I resist the urge to smart mouth him, but what my non-lawyer mind gleans after his obligatory preface is that the Good lawyer--meaning decent as opposed to sharp--operates as a mediator and avoids dropping automatically into an advocacy role. I suppose the summary phrase is "come let us reason together" and the implicit assumption of Mark's point is that time and money would be saved if we all took a few minutes to talk before suing. In starker terms, the lawyer is "mom" and she should slap the snot out of her little darlings before their problems or behaviors escalate into the public record.

Implicit in Mark's reasoning is that the law should be more than another line of business and that those practicing it ought to be practical philosophers and guardians of the civic and social order...as opposed to the hustlers many of them have become. Yet, people are strange, as Jim Morrison used to sing, and why should lawyers be exempt from the general run of human strangeness and perfidy? If we were better people wouldn't we have better lawyers?

The message of Bleak House is that a lawsuit is the end of reason and not as we presuppose, the beginning of reasoned argument. Speaking strictly as a human being and not as a lawyer I find that a bit sad. Thankfully, Dickens found it funny and wrote a flawed but very human book. You can read all about it at better bookstores everywhere.