Thursday, November 23, 2006

Review: Lawyers & Vampires

[W. Wesley Pue and David Sugarman, editors. Lawyers & Vampires: Cultural Histories of Legal Professions. Oxford and Portland, Oregon: Hart Publishers, 2003.]

I fear that this book is a good example of inefficiencies in my work process. Really there were only two essays in this book that are directly relevant to my work, and perhaps only two or three others that I was really interested in, so I probably should have found it in a library, read only those two (or five), and been on my way. But I bought it -- books are one of my few consumerist weaknesses -- and therefore felt obliged to read the whole thing (at least in part so I could write a review).

The book is a collection of essays looking at histories of lawyers and other legal professionals in a manner that is ostensibly cultural and comparative, though I think the latter is a bit of a stretch since it is comparative only in the sense of having essays about different countries in the same volume rather than direct comparison within most of the essays. To a certain extent it is successful, though, because the biggest benefit to me of reading the entire volume was getting a more concrete sense than I have previously had of the ways in which the social organization of the law and those people who bring it to life tend to be highly specific to different states. The book only considers states in or derived from cultures that are European, Christian, and capitalist, yet the differences are significant.

I have to admit that, even though it took me longer than it should have to read, I read parts of this book more shallowly than usual. Essays on the impacts on lawyers of Finnish state formation or an investigation of the fees of 19th century French avocats have their place, I'm sure, but do not particularly excite me.

On the other hand, there were essays that are not directly relevant to my work but that I did quite enjoy. Perhaps the most significant of these was the first essay in the book, which examined the collective life, culture, and rituals of legal professions in England between 1500 and 1830. It was fascinating to hear about how, for example, English barristers were formally collectively organized around four inns -- the Inns of Court -- in London where they all stayed while court was in session. Originally just places that happened to be nearby, by the period of this study they had evolved into sites of education, apprenticeship, discipline, ritual, and considerable tradition, and were essentially closed guilds. As well, it is interesting to read history that is from Europe but that is sufficiently pre-capitalist that pomp and rituals are taken extremely seriously by the participants. As was the insight into how, as the modern state developed, it gradually usurped the independent, self-organized (although not at all internally democratic) authority of the Inns of Court through patronage and skillful manipulation.

I also had a passing interest in the essay about the trade union of junior French judges with radical syndicalist politics that was at its peak between 1968 and 1978, and in the one that gave a detailed reading of Bram Stoker's Dracula as a legal novel. I would have gotten more out of the latter had I ever actually read the novel myself, but even so I quite enjoyed it.

The two essays of most use to me were, not surprisingly, the two essays on the history of lawyering in Canada. Both provided me with leads to other sources that will be useful, and I think I managed to get a quote or two that I will use in contextualizing the chapter that I hope to start writing at some point in December.

The first of the two examined what it termed the "cultural chasm" between the legal profession and Mennonites in Western Canada in the first four decades of the 20th century. It gave a brief history of Mennonites in that part of the country, who at that time were still very much ethnically distinct communities. Then it talked about the culture surrounding lawyers at that time -- it was explicitly British and explicitly committed to facilitating the expansion of the particular vision of liberal capitalist individualism that was tightly linked to "Britishness" in the Canadian imagination at the time, and to dissolving more collective ways of being found among indigenous peoples and some non-Anglo immigrant groups. The final essay looks more at the deliberate cultivation of a particular vision of professionalism among Canadian lawyers, again especially those in Western Canada in the early 20th century, and makes a strong case for the ways in which deliberate choices were made by senior members of the profession (and the state) which not only furthered colonial and assimilationist goals but were also quite openly chosen to suppress radical political ferment.

So, yes, I am glad I read this book. Only I really do know that I have to be more careful and make more efficient use of my time as I make decisions about what to read and how to go about my research. The Inns of Court and Dracula are fascinating, but I have my own book to finish. (Thank goodness the writing side of things has been going well this week!)

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