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Keeva on Life and Practice

Lives Shaped by Books


Rrecently, I e-mailed about 40 lawyers and posed a simple question: “What nonlaw book has been most important to you in your life as a lawyer, and why?” Almost everyone responded, and not without a good deal of insight—into both themselves and the world around us.

It was especially gratifying to receive so many well-considered responses. Less gratifying, however, is knowing that I can’t include them all. THE SOCIAL ASPECT

This month, I’ll share some of my favorites that deal with social themes. Next month, I’ll highlight books that explore the inner person.

• Judge Royal Furgeson, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, San Antonio

Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! because it offers the best prescription for friendship that I’ve ever read. When Carl tells Alex­andra (the protagonist) that he and his family are abandoning Nebraska and moving back East, he says he wishes he could have been of more help to her. Her response is that by understanding her, he has helped her. Then she says, “I expect that is the only way one person ever can really help another. I think you are about the only one that ever helped me.” I have never forgotten this passage because I think it is true to its core. Nothing is more important in this world than to be a friend (especially to our loved ones), and, above all else, friendship requires understanding.

• Mark Ellis, executive director, International Bar Asso­ci­ation, London

Thirty years ago, while a junior in high school, I read Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. Focused on his firsthand account of depraved life during the industrial period of Victorian England, Dickens took me on a powerful and profound journey that opened my eyes to social injus­tices on a scale that I could hardly imagine. Today, I live in London and devote a significant part of my legal career to the area of international human rights. I still gain inspiration from the book; its lessons are still being taught.

• John Rockefeller, J.D., CEO, Zero Consult Ltd., Cumber­land Foreside, Maine

George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. That book—more than even Dickens’ Bleak House—taught me to appreciate the plight of the poor and therefore taught me about the law. Living rough brings people into a unique alignment with legal process, and proves the value and potential of all legal systems. It is only when legal process is accessible to those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder that social unrest and abuse can be mitigated. I worry that stratification has pushed us away from the notion of equality under the law and fear that it will get worse if not reeled in to address the increasing distance between the classes in this country.

• Cass Sunstein, professor, University of Chicago Law School

John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. The rea­son is that it is the most elaborate and careful discussion of what justice requires—and hence illuminates many legal problems.

• Tom Leavens, general counsel and vice president for business and legal affairs, LRSmedia, Chicago

I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was a teen­ager, and it profoundly influenced me on sev­eral levels. It made me feel more keenly the world of injustice that I had known of, but not experienced. Malcolm’s life opened my eyes to that in a way that hadn’t happened before. I recall the description of the murder of his father, which took place in the town where my father grew up—Lansing, Mich., a town he would not have described as being racist. I thought ra­cism that virulent was a feature of the South, not a place where my father grew up.

• Pauline Tesler, lawyer, mediator and collaborative law pioneer, San Francisco

Amitai Etzioni’s The New Golden Rule provides a superb rationale for changing our conception of what the lawyer’s best and highest role ought to be in conflict resolution.

• Katherine Rosenberry, professor, California Western School of Law, San Diego

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. It is a wonderful demonstration of how two well-meaning groups—the University of California medical system and people from the Hmong culture—can destroy a child simply by a lack of understanding of the other’s cultural values. It is a great lesson for lawyers.

• Thomas E. Baker, professor, Florida International University College of Law, Miami

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I grew up in modest circumstances in the South, and Atticus Finch was a worthy hero for me—he is the reason I imagined I could go to law school. He believed in the rule of law and the dignity of man. But he was a character of fiction. Be­cause of inspired and inspiring real-world lawyers—like the great Thurgood Marshall—our country would move closer to its unforgiving ideals.


Steven Keeva, an assistant managing editor, is the auth­or of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfac­tion in the Legal Life.


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