The Lawyer as Artist

In 1989 Salman Rushdie was quoted in the London Independent as saying:

“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.”

To me this sounds a lot like the work of a lawyer. Is there a connection between artistic creation such as one finds in poetry and the practice law? Can a lawyer be an artist, or are we merely logical thinkers who rarely color outside the lines society draws for us?

When I was a law student attending City University of New York School of Law I lived in Brooklyn. When the long hours of studying law exhausted my energies I would sometimes take the subway into Manhattan, or “the city” as genuine city dwellers call it. Once in there, I would go to the Pastel Society of America where they offered inexpensive classes in pastel painting led by the top pastel painting artists in the United States. I loved these classes and found the process by which these incredible artists created their paintings to be fascinating. Through these classes I began to see that a tree is more than just green and brown, but is really a collection of an endless variety of different colors spanning the entire rainbow. Indeed, the only limit on the colors found in a tree is that created by the artist’s own mind. When I would return from my expedition into the world of art and creativity to the “logical” world of law I noticed that my understanding of the cases and legal principles I was studying seemed to be enhanced. I wasn’t just rejuvenated – I was inspired. It occurred to me that, after the classes, I was seeing law differently, and this led to a continuing curiosity into the intersection between law and art.

I don’t often hear people describing lawyers as artists, but in my mind great lawyers think artistically as well as logically. I love going to art museums, plays, concerts, and reading great writing because, when executed well, they provide me with opportunities to see some aspect of the world from a different perspective. For me, art is fundamental. In my spare time I play and study music. I explore Tallahassee on my bicycle and take photographs. I’ve written and performed a play about economic justice. Even this blog is a creative outlet that allows me to play with ideas. I find that art is at its very best when it takes something that is familiar to me and lets me see it in a totally different way than I’ve ever seen it before.

So it is with law. I believe that a great lawyer or judge doesn’t just see law and justice as words on a page to be blindly followed and applied. Such an approach to the law would leave it forever stagnant and allow injustices to go undiscovered. Great lawyers recognize injustices and create for themselves and others, a constantly refining vision of justice. Consider that for nearly 100 years the law and the courts in the United States steadfastly held onto the rarely challenged notion that racial segregation under the doctrine of “separate but equal” was justice. However, it took visionary lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall to show them a different perspective, that “separate but equal” would never be equal. Such work is as much art as it is logic. The question is how to tell the story such that the injustice of the status quo becomes undeniable.

The primary art form of the lawyer is that of storyteller. Our client’s cases are non-fiction stories that we advocate be viewed from a certain perspective. Our choice of words, the way in which we present evidence, the focus we give to certain facts, and the way in which interpret the law all become part of our storytelling vision. I know that many will read this and think that this idea of “storytelling” is justification for deception and dishonesty, but it’s not that at all. Effective storytelling is truthful. When a story becomes dishonest it loses the ability to fully engage us. Good stories are often messy and even the best cases usually present a challenging fact or two for a lawyer to deal with. It is the lawyer’s ability to weave the messy or difficult parts of the story into a collective whole with a positive truth for the client that I believe distinguishes great creative lawyers from the ordinary.

Many lawyers such as John Grisham, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and Scott Turow have made successful transitions from lawyer to author. In fact, so many lawyers are interested in making the transition from lawyer to author that there actually was a panel called “The Law as a Platform for Writing” at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Bar Association. While I hear many stories of unhappy lawyers, I don’t see the interest in writing as a product of that unhappiness. Instead, I see it as evidence that many lawyers see the art in our profession, and once this is recognized, are compelled to give expression to that art in as many ways possible both in and out of the courtroom.

 

 

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