Lawyers and Literature

James R. Elkins

the course

| spring | 2018 |

"The issue is no longer whether reading literature should be part of the lawyer's training. Rather, the issue is how we can best read law-related literature to make us better lawyers."

William Domnarski, Law-Literature Criticism: Charting a Desirable Course with Billy Budd, 34 J. Legal Educ. 702 (1984)

The course website provides extensive commentary on and about Lawyers and Literature. On the course website, you will also find, for many of the assignments, especially for those early in the course, web resources associated with the week's assigned readings.

I expect you to have questions about the stories and poetry we read—why are we doing this kind of reading in law school?—and that you will have questions about why we read the stories the way (the several ways) we will try to read them. To put these questions in the context of the course, I have tried to put myself in your shoes and ask: what are we doing here? what is Lawyers and Literature all about? As part of this syllabus, and the introduction to the course, you are invited to peruse a "little book" that I have compiled to help you get oriented. I have given the book a tentative title: Stories in the Education of Lawyers. Here is the table of contents of the book:

Cover | Table of Contents


Prologue: "Tell Me a Story"

Chapter 1: Claiming Law School as a Place of Stories

Chapter 2: The Law World Gets Real

Chapter 3: Meditations on the Fictions We Live

Chapter 4: A Letter to My Friend, Lowell Komie

Chapter 5: Stories Take Center Stage

Chapter 6: Our Work with Stories

Chapter 7: A Conversation about Lawyers & Literature Continues

Chapter 8: Listening To Others Talk About What We Are Trying
to Do in Lawyers & Literature
:: Pt2 of Chapter 8

Chapter 9: Talking with Rebecca and Clara about Their Encounter
with Fictional Lawyers

Epilogue: An Autobiographical Postscript


A Note On Your Use of the Book: I have organized the chapters in a way that fits my eye, and my thinking about the course. The chapters could, without ill-effect, be organized much differently. The chapters are linked (and sometimes a bit overlapping) but they would, I think, make perfectly good sense if they were read in random order.

For a basic orientation and law school context for the study of stories in your education as a lawyer, see: Chapter 1.

In the first several weeks of the course, we will be reading stories by Lowell Komie. Students interested in my writing about the Komie stories, should read: Chapter 2 :: Chapter 3 :: Chapter 4.

If you are interested in something akin to a syllabus, something that doesn't look like or read like a syllabus, see: Chapter 5: Stories Take Center Stage; Chapter 6: Our Work with Stories, and Chapter 7: Our Conversation about Lawyers & Literature Continues

I should forewarn you that Lawyers and Literature is not a traditional Law and Literature course. The most obvious difference is that our focus is on lawyers and the world in which we live our lives as lawyers, and not on law and justice, a common theme in Law and Literature courses. Lawyers and Literature is, in some broader context, a "law and literature" course, but the course is most definitely not a traditional Law and Literature course. On the fundamental difference in making this shift in perspective from law to lawyers, see William Domnarski, Law and Literature, 27 Legal Stud. F. 109 (2003) [excerpts from the Domnarski essay]

As a novice law student—day one, One L—you learn that reading judicial opinions (the primary texts assigned to read in law school) requires some experience and, for many, a new strategy of reading. You may find that in reading stories, you again, must rethink how you read and begin to focus on how you are going to read stories. I have tried to get at this problem of reading and the work we do in the course, in: Chapter 6: Our Work with Stories.

Lawyers and Literature pretends to offer a "literary course of reading." This may, for some, mean little more than the fact that we are not reading "legal thrillers" by John Grisham. For me, and I assume, for some of you, the idea of literary reading is that we may well read for the pleasure of reading but we are also reading for what we can learn about ourselves and about the world we inhabit with others (strange creatures as they so often turn out to be). I have tried, in a rather diffuse way, to provide further context on this idea of literary reading, by turning to the work of others and reporting on what I have found. For my report, see: Chapter 8: Listening To Others Talk About What We Are Trying to Do in Lawyers & Literature :: Pt2 of Chapter8. With infinite patience, or, having developed an inordinate curiosity about the course, you decide to continue your about the course reading, you may find the "compilation" of ideas and perspectives in Chapter 9 of interest.

Lawyers and Literature is a reading course, and, properly conceived and fully executed, it would be a writing course. Reading stories is one thing, writing about and writing with stories is a different proposition. For a teacher's conversations about writing the course, see: Chapter 9: Talking with Rebecca and Clara about Their Encounter with Fictional Lawyers

Beginning a book, even a "little book" of the kind I have presented to you here, is a daunting task. I might say the same about bringing these "chapters" to a close. Knowing that I have failed in the task, I present the with: Chapter 11: An Autobiographical Postscript

What will we do in Lawyers and Literature? I expect that we will, in some fashion or other::

consider the possibilities and obstacles to learning about ourselves as lawyers from literature;

identify strategies we use as readers when we confront and try to understand a story; ;

learn something about the dynamics of pedagogical/literary conversation by which we try to put lawyer stories to use;

puzzle over the relation of the real and fictional dimensions of the lawyers we find in the stories we read and in the lives we live as lawyers;

investigate, with the help of the stories we read, how legal education–how being a lawyer–opens up and closes down important aspects of minds and our lives;

acknowledge the existence of contemporary lawyer poets, and peruse enough of their poetry to give us as feel for how poetry works.

The psychologist, Jerome Bruner, argues that we should "constantly be inquiring about the interaction between the powers of individual minds and the means by which the culture aids or thwarts their realization." Bruner contends that this inquiry "will inevitably involve us in a never-ending assessment of the fit between what any particular culture deems essential for a good, or useful, or worthwhile way of life, and how individuals adapt to these demands as they impinge on their lives." [Jerome Bruner, The Culture of Education 13 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996)]. The legal profession is, by some accounts, a distinct culture which aids and thwarts the realization of individual minds and lives. Lawyers and Literature examines, from a literary perspective, how a lawyer's life is enriched and diminished by the very culture that makes it possible.

What will we read in Lawyers and Literature

--a tentative outline--

Course Readings

Short stories

J.S. Marcus, "Centaurs" in J.S. Marcus, The Art of Cartography 17-23 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)

selected stories in Lowell B. Komie, The Legal Fiction of Lowell B. Komie (Chicago: Swordfish/Chicago, 2005)

"Weight," in Margaret Atwood, Wilderness Tips 163-178 (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990)

"Let's Do," in Rebecca Meacham, Let's Do 63-86 (Denton, Texas: University of North Texas Press, 2004)

"Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife," in Cynthia Ozick, The Puttermesser Papers 3-19 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)

selected lawyer stories in John William Corrington, The Collected Stories of John William Corrington (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990)

A Novel

Leslie Hall Pinder, On Double Tracks (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1990)


Herman Melville, "Bartleby, the Scrivener," in Jay Wishingrad (ed.), Legal Fictions: Short Stories about Lawyers and the Law 224-258 (Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press, 1992)

"The Death of Ivan Ilych," in Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories 95-156 (New York: New American Library, 1960)


selected poetry in James Clarke, The Juried Heart (New York: Pleasure Boat Studio, 2015) [republished in Canada under the title Oblique Verdicts (Ontario: Exile Editions, 2017)] [foreword to both the U.S. and Canadian editions by James R. Elkins]

Questions emerge when you read the stories: What is this story doing here? What am I supposed to do with this story? What do I have to say about this story? How can this story be read and put to use in my education as a lawyer? When questions of this kind emerge, raise them, see that they get addressed.

Admittedly, these questions raise still more basic questions: How do I read? How am I to try to read this story? In thinking about these basic questions you may find it interesting, as you begin to think about the course, to reflect on the s-t-r-a-t-e-g-i-e-s you use in reading.

Reading Strategies

Assignments will be marked on the Lawyers and Literature course website assignments page with double purple bullets: . In addition to the assigned literary readings, you may find it helpful in preparation for class discussion (and in your writing for the course) to peruse the Instructor's Notes that accompany many of the assigned readings. The Instructor's Notes will include references to web resources that you may find useful.

If you attempt to access anything on the course website and find the link inoperative, please notify me by email and I will try to promptly correct the problem.

Web resources on the course website are indicated with a "web resources" image:

Web resources are not assigned reading. I should note that I do not present web resources with the idea that they provide direct guidance on how to read, or how to work with a particular story. The web resources provide information about authors and critical/scholarly commentary on the assigned texts. Many of the linked web resources will be of more interest to graduate students in literature than to law students. I don't see any great harm in trying to see what we read and how we read it in the larger context suggested by the collected web resources.

If, during the course of your reading and web browsing, you find web resources of interest to the class, please pass them along and I'll make them available, either by announcement, or by adding them to the relevant "web resources" page of the course website.

After each week of classes, I will update the assignments page and will add the completed week's assignment to the Assignments Archive page (which you can access from the homepage of the course website).

If you have questions or concerns about, or proposals for readings, you are welcome to consult with me. I will, barring unforeseen circumstances, promptly reply to email messages. I will be delighted to meet with you and discuss the readings, the course, and your writing for the course.

My office is: Rm 110. Drop me a note by email, or see me before or after class, and we will find a convenient time to meet.

I have not addressed, in this part of the syllabus, the means and method by which your work in the course will be evaluated. For this information, I refer you to the course website: Evaluation

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