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Holiday Book List: Some Recommended Books on Law and Lawyers

In honor of the holiday season, here’s a brief diversion from thoughts about executives’ contracts and compensation.

I love reading books about lawyers and the law, whether or not they have anything to do with my own field of legal practice. For me, they have everything:  important intellectual and political issues as well as the drama of human conflict.

So — just in time for your last-minute shopping — here is a list of some of my favorite books about the law. Some are new, or at least recent, and some are classics; all can be read with pleasure and for profit.

After the holidays, the next Perspectives will once again focus on our own legal concentration:  executive contracts and compensation.

We are deeply grateful for the opportunities which we have been given over this past year to serve a wonderful group of friends and clients.

To all of our friends and clients, a healthy and happy New Year!

 

1. Philippe Sands, East West Street:  On The Origins Of “Crimes Against Humanity” And “Genocide” (Knopf, 2016).

Four lives which intersected around the cosmopolitan town of Lvov (aka Lviv, Lwow, Lemberg), sometimes called “the little Paris of Ukraine” — the author’s grandfather, the Cambridge law professor Hersch Lauterpacht, the American lawyer Rafael Lemkin, and Hans Frank, the Nazi functionary sent to govern Poland during WW II — form the basis of a riveting history of how the Holocaust caused the competing crimes of “Genocide” (an assault on an ethnic group) and “Crimes Against Humanity” (targeting innocent individuals) to enter the lexicon of international law. A brilliant if painful book, beautifully written, by an international human rights lawyer. Most powerful moment:  author asks the son of Hans Frank, who was hanged after the Nuremberg trials, whether the son — then only 6 years old, but now an old man — can exonerate his father, and receives the reply, “He was a lawyer. He knew what he was doing.”

2. Geoffrey Robertson, The Tyrannicide Brief:  The Story Of The Man Who Sent Charles I To The Scaffold (Pantheon, 2005).

In 1649, almost all of legal London seemed to know that Parliament was about to indict the King for crimes which could lead him to the block, and soon would be sending over to the Inns of Court the brief which would appoint a prosecutor. Many lawyers promptly discovered they had weekend plans to get out of town. One upright Puritan barrister stuck around and, under the so-called “cab rank” rule, felt that it was his duty to accept the assignment when it came his way. A dramatic courtroom re-telling by another well known international rights lawyer, and the cautionary tale of a good deed which did not go unpunished when Charles’ son returned to the throne a decade later.  A terrific book.

3. Stephen M. Wise, Though The Heavens May Fall:  The Landmark Trial That Led To The End Of Slavery (Merloyd Lawrence, 2005).

The utterly compelling story of how the legendary British jurist, Lord Mansfield, abolished slavery in Great Britain with a stroke of his pen at the end of the 18th century. The case at issue, involving a Quaker businessman who believed he could persuade a court that slavery was antipathetic to England’s traditional respect for human freedom, becomes more suspenseful when set against the background of a judicial system which ordinarily tried capital crimes in as little as twenty minutes — literally — with Mansfield, in his wig and scarlet and ermine robes, badgering the (all male) jury, forced to confer in the jury box itself, by shouting, “What’s taking you fellows so long??!” Astoundingly, here the system worked, and moved the world into the progressive age.

4. Adam Winkler, Gunfight: The Battle Over The Right To Bear Arms In America (W.W. Norton, 2011) and Dale Carpenter, Flagrant Conduct: The Story Of Lawrence v. Texas, How A Bedroom Arrest Decriminalized Gay Americans(W.W Norton, 2012).

If you ever wondered how interest groups “tee up” a case for the United States Supreme Court, here are recent and vivid examples, from both the right — how the NRA established the principle that the Second Amendment sanctifies an individual right to own firearms, and not just in connection with a state militia (the Heller case) — and the left — how activists convinced the Court to overturn Bowers v. Georgia, the 1986 anti-sodomy decision. The latter book even suggests that the factual record is often somewhat stage-managed. Both books are by law professors who write well, and who gear their presentations to a non-professional audience. The books also contain a variety of fascinating but little known facts.  Who knew that the major proponent of early gun control laws was the NRA itself?!?

5. Thomas Healy, The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind — And Changed The History Of Free Speech In America (Henry Holt, 2013).

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. saw the horrible carnage of the American Civil War up close as a young Union officer, and thereafter was highly skeptical about human nature, including arguments for “individual rights.” So, having rejected Eugene Debs’ appeal from a 10-year prison sentence for making an anti-war speech during WWI, a vote by Justice Holmes to reject the First Amendment argument in Abrams v. United States only a year later appeared to be a “slam dunk.” Not so fast. This book tells the engrossing story of how a number of Holmes’s steady friends and correspondents, Learned Hand and Harold Laski prominent among them, persuaded the Grand Old Man to change his mind and write a dissenting opinion which became a bedrock of our law of Free Speech.

6. Deborah E. Lipstadt, History On Trial (Ecco Press, 2005).

The basis for the recent motion picture Denial, Professor Lipstadt of Emory University made it her scholarly business to expose writers who tried to deny that the Holocaust ever happened. One of them, a formerly prominent historian named David Irving, thought that he could bully Lipstadt into silence by suing her for libel in the British courts, where, unlike in our law, the burden of proving the truth falls on the defendant rather than the plaintiff. This meant that her counsel had to prove that the Holocaust not only happened, but that Irving, fueled by anti-Semitism, had distorted and hidden the truth!! I won’t reveal the end of what becomes a genuine courtroom thriller other than to say that the courageous Professor’s choice of her solicitor and her barrister could not be faulted. Another hint:  Irving represented himself. (I have not seen the movie, but Lisa tells me that it is good rather than great, so don’t deprive yourself of the pleasure of the book.)

7. Louis Nizer, My Life In Court (Doubleday, 1961).

Still compulsively readable after more than half a century. Mr. Nizer was my early mentor, so I may be a bit biased, but this was the book that, long before John Grisham, Scott Turow and endless hours of CSILA Law and Suits, introduced many Americans to the “down-and-dirty” of the adversary process. My own law professors at Harvard in the early 1970’s were “shocked” that Nizer had discussed his clients’ affairs in public, i.e., they were envious that he sold over a million books. The other Nizer book worth reading, The Jury Returns (Doubleday, 1966), centers on the case of John Henry Faulk against the blacklisters, and is almost as good.

And last but certainly not least:

8. Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853).

Every lawyer — actually, everyone — should read this book once a decade for a reality check on what legal institutions can and cannot do in the realm of human affairs. Dickens’ indictment of the English class system plays out against a will contest called Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, a case which eternally languishes in the Court of Chancery, ruining lives and hopes and enriching no one except the lawyers. Here is the world’s greatest storyteller in the white heat of his mature imagination. It is both gripping and profound. Haven’t read it since college? Re-read it immediately. Never read it? Don’t depart this mortal life without treating yourself to one of the supreme artistic experiences in English literature.

Gratefully looking through our work of this past year, I believe that, unlike the fictional case in Bleak House, we enriched our clients more than we cost them, which is a leading principle of our practice.

Happy holidays, and good reading!

About the Author

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George Birnbaum

Since 1980, sophisticated business people have relied on George to apply the meticulous preparation, attention to detail, and devotion to his clients he learned from fabled trial lawyer Louis Nizer. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, George has over 35 years of distinguished deal-making, litigation, mediation and arbitration experience which he has used to negotiate high-stakes agreements for senior executives and select business clients throughout the United States.