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The musical “Hamilton” is based on Ron Chernow’s biography and tells the story of Alexander Hamilton’s ascent and fall—from an orphan on the island of Nevis to Treasury secretary to death at Aaron Burr’s hand. (Thinkstock image)

Sybil Procedure: Art for the law’s sake

Artists have long enjoyed portraying the legal profession. The portrayals run the gamut — from highbrow to low including “Inherit the Wind,” “The Trial,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Firm,” “My Cousin Vinny,” “Boston Legal,” and “Ally McBeal.” I have seen no official data, but I suspect that we must be killing the other professions when it comes to artistic portrayals (I’ll acknowledge it may be a close race with doctors). But there just aren’t that many plays or television shows about actuaries or computer programing. And this makes sense. Our profession generates naturally compelling stories. Trials contain a narrative arch — there is conflict and resolution within each case.

Some of these artistic portrayals encouraged many of us to become lawyers in the first place. I’ve certainly met a fair share of lawyers who selected their career after being inspired by “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Twelve Angry Men” or “Philadelphia.” And there may be an up and coming generation of lawyers inspired by “Erin Brockovich” and “Legally Blonde.”

I generally, however, have a hard time engaging with legal dramas or fiction after work. When I worked in politics, I used to hate watching “The West Wing” because it felt like I was tuning into work after work. And now I think the same phenomenon is at play. No need to watch” Boston Legal”—I’ll either start working the case in my head or be annoyed that someone is messing up the rules of evidence.

But “Hamilton” was different. This past year, like many Americans, I discovered the musical “Hamilton” and became obsessed. For those of you who haven’t heard, “Hamilton” is a rap musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The musical is based on Ron Chernow’s biography and tells the story of Alexander Hamilton’s ascent and fall—from an orphan on the island of Nevis to Treasury secretary to death at Aaron Burr’s hand. At a White House poetry session, Miranda explained that Hamilton’s life embodies hip hop—Hamilton caught beef with every other founding father and did it all on the strength of his writing. And he was a lawyer.

I’m not alone in my obsession. The musical, its writer, and its cast have won pretty much every accolade available including 11 Tonys, a Pulitzer Prize, and a MacArthur Genius grant. But—beyond the deserved awards—the musical touched me personally.

I began listening to the soundtrack almost one year ago. I had been working hard on a trial and hadn’t been listening to music regularly when I downloaded the soundtrack on my drive to work. Suddenly, I couldn’t turn it off. The story. The music. The cast’s phenomenal performances. I found myself humming/rapping the songs throughout my day. And I felt great. I was reminded of the power of music to improve my mood and energize me. While I’m not still listening to the album on repeat (although I was for a time) my love for the album reminded me that I need more music in my life because it makes me a happier person. As a result of my “Hamilton” wake-up call, I’m listening to more and different music and my now regular dose of pop, Motown, jazz, musicals, and folk music brings me joy.

But the musical also reminded me of my love for our profession and its ideals. The musical praises Hamilton for his hard work (“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”) and showcases his efforts starting a legal practice, writing the Federalist Papers, and helping to craft our system of government including our legal system. Hamilton is the story’s hero not because he’s perfect (a fact his wife would certainly attest to) but because he cares passionately about his adopted country and dedicates his life to its service. In this current political climate, I have been inspired by his desire to create something bigger than himself. So inspired, in fact, that I picked up the Chernow biography and devoured it like it was the last Harry Potter novel. Now I’m digging into Chernow’s “Washington.”

Last December, I attended a New Year’s Eve party where the host asked us to go around the room and share something meaningful that had happened that year. Folks talked about new babies and work success. I shared Hamilton. I had discovered a piece of art that made me happy, inspired me in my profession, and had me thinking about what contributions I could make to our country.

Art has touched and shaped me in lots of ways over the years. I remember reading Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in high school and just being floored by Shakespeare’s use of the English language. I listened to Ani Di Franco challenge the patriarchy in college and felt like she was speaking to my 18-year old soul. A print of “Moulin de la Galette” graced the walls of my first apartment and reminded me of beauty in the world (because it certainly wasn’t otherwise present in my first apartment). “Hamilton” is the musical I needed as a grownup. I needed to be reminded that I love music. I needed to be reminded that our profession is important and requires my care. I needed to be reminded of the nobility of hard work.

The musical might not have this effect on you. I’ve even met people who don’t like it. But if you want to see if it does, it’s coming to Chicago next week. You may even run into me in the theater.

 


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