Annual Meeting

What did Shakespeare think about lawyers? Panel counts the ways

It was clear that this would not be a typical CLE program when Jeffrey Watkins leaped onto a chair and began quoting William Shakespeare like a pro.

Actually, Watkins is a pro. He is artistic director of the Atlanta Shakespeare Company, which in 2011 became the first American company to present all 39 of the Bard’s plays. But this afternoon, Watkins was in San Francisco with Laura Cole, an actress and the company’s director of education and training, to help a panel at the ABA Annual Meeting show what Shakespeare, who wrote most of those plays between 1594 and his death in 1616, really thought of lawyers. The program was sponsored by the ABA Section of Litigation.

The fact is, Shakespeare had quite a lot to say about lawyers, and many of his observations still are relevant to the profession today. As moderator Gregory R. Hanthorn, who is of counsel to Jones Day in Atlanta, and the other panelists explained to an enraptured audience of some 100 people, Shakespeare addressed issues in his plays such as resistance to tyranny; the reliance of lawyers on the technicalities of the law (what Shakespeare called its “quiddities” and “quillets”); the costs of incompetence; and the duty to give clients candid, straightforward advice.

The famous phrase, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” appears in Henry VI, Part 2, one of Shakespeare’s historical plays. The immediate context reveals a character’s personal resentment of lawyers, but the larger meaning of the statement praises lawyers, said panelist Roberta K. Flowers, a professor at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla., because they protect society from tyranny. “For there to be tyranny, we must eliminate those who protect rights,” she said.

But Shakespeare often was critical of lawyers as well. In the comedy Much Ado About Nothing, he gives a scathing portrayal of Dogberry, the captain of the watch. Dogberry makes a mess of his examination of two criminals and his report on the matter. For any thoughtful lawyer watching the play, it’s hard not to think of the directive of Rule 1.1 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which call for competent representation of clients.

“What Shakespeare shows,” Hanthorn said, is that lawyers aren’t either great or terrible. They can be both. “When we perform well, he shows us to be phenomenal, but when we don’t, he shows that we can be terrible.”

Using the works of Shakespeare to get that message across still is effective, Hanthorn said. “Shakespeare has never left popular culture,” said Hanthorn, noting that Joss Whedon, who directed The Avengers on film and the television hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, recently released a film version of Much Ado About Nothing. “As long as that’s happening, and people recognize these as terrific stories and plays, people will continue to see them,” said Hanthorn, who noted that the Atlanta Shakespeare Company performs 51 weeks a year.

Panelist Richard Willis, the co-managing partner of Bowman and Brooke in Columbia, S.C., put it this way: “Shakespeare lives with us today, and thank goodness for it.”

Updated Aug. 9 to correctly name Roberta Flowers.

We welcome your comments, but please adhere to our comment policy and the ABA Code of Conduct.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.