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For the English majors

Michael Goodwin//March 10, 2011

For the English majors

Michael Goodwin//March 10, 2011

By Michael Goodwin

Lots of English majors wind up in law school. For many, the study of literature ends there. Not for Joseph Hassett, an accomplished litigator at Hogan Lovells who also managed to earn a Ph.D in Anglo-Irish literature and recently published a book about the life and poetry of W.B. Yeats.

Discussing the parallels between his two disciplines with Vivia Chen of The Careerist blog, Hassett explained, “Yeats was a very aggressive thinker about his life and the world. He said, ‘Hammer your thoughts into unity.’ That aspect of Yeats’s work is like my trial work…In “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” Yeats talked about making masterful images by taking elements of everyday life, like ‘old kettles and old bottles.’ In preparing for trials, you are also trying to create a structure, a narrative, and masterful images.”

A Ph.D might be a little much for most of us to take on, but reading outside the law is essential to developing good lawyering skills, especially writing. In Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges, legal writing guru Bryan Garner and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recommend reading broadly:

As you read, so will you write. If you read nothing but pulp novels and tabloid newspapers, you will write like them. Most lawyers have probably not descended to that level of recreational reading material – but alas, their everyday professional, non-recreational reading is (literarily speaking) even worse. Lawyers tend to be bad writers because their profession condemns them to a diet of bad reading material.

U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Posner, in his book Law and Literature, arrives at the same conclusion, albeit somewhat less enthusiastically: “To be a good lawyer one must be a careful and resourceful reader, and immersion in poetry and other difficult imaginative literature is therefore not the worst preparation for the study of law.”

In any case, it sounds like a good excuse to visit the library.

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