Joseph Tartakovsky: Dickens v. Lawyers

Roundup: Talking About History

Joseph Tartakovsky is a law clerk at the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

TUESDAY is the bicentenary of the birth, in Portsmouth, England, of Charles Dickens, literature’s greatest humanist. We can rejoice that so many of the evils he assailed with his beautiful, ferocious quill — dismal debtors’ prisons, barefoot urchin labor, an indifferent nobility — have happily been reformed into oblivion. But one form of wickedness he decried haunts us still, proud and unrepentant: the lawyer.

Lawyers appear in 11 of his 15 novels. Some of them even resemble humans. Uriah Heep (“David Copperfield”) is a red-eyed cadaver whose “lank forefinger,” while he reads, makes “clammy tracks along the page ... like a snail.” Mr. Vholes (“Bleak House”), “so eager, so bloodless and gaunt,” is “always looking at the client, as if he were making a lingering meal of him with his eyes.” Most lawyers infest dimly lighted, moldy offices “like maggots in nuts.” (No, counselor, writers dead since 1870 cannot be sued for libel.)

Dickens knew whereof he spoke. At 15, he was hired as an “attorney’s clerk,” serving subpoenas, registering wills, copying transcripts; later he became a court reporter. For three formative years he was surrounded by law students, law clerks, copying clerks, court clerks, magistrates, barristers and solicitors who (reborn in his fiction) uttered cheerful sentiments like “I hate my profession.”...

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