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25 greatest law novels...ever!

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The ABA Journal has been exploring a fascinating romance between lawyers and popular culture. We’ve traced this connection through films and plays and television, and the conclusion is inescapable: Not only do lawyers seem to love pop culture; pop culture seems to love lawyers back.

But this year we’re raising the bar. We’ve attempted to survey the world of literature to find the best portrayals of lawyers and the law. To do so, we convened a panel of experts—a worthy group of particularly well-read lawyers and scholars—and asked for their nominations. We composed a ballot that included more than 100 of the greatest novels ever written—novels whose storylines revolved around lawyers or legal cases or the moral milieu of the law.

From that ballot, our panel picked their personal favorites. Their choices defined for us the top 25 legal novels (actually 26, as you’ll see). But more than that, they gave us the starting point for a discussion we intend to keep having on how and why the law is such a comfortable starting place for our narratives about human life. These are stories that have endured for years or decades, or even generations. Many of them are familiar; some of them, less so. Among them are stories of life and death, courage and betrayal, loyalty and honor, revenge and redemption—in other words, human existence.

Choose your favorite with this poll, criticize our choices in the comments or simply put together a reading list of your own. But your starting point is here, in the photo gallery here: our list of the greatest law novels ever.


What? Where’s In Cold Blood?

There were a lot of great books that didn’t make our list of “The 25 Greatest Law Novels Ever,” and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was one of them. In Cold Blood was a seminal contribution to the true-crime genre, but it wasn’t a novel. It was written with all the narrative conventions of a work of fiction—and received some defiant votes from our judges—but it was too deeply identified as journalism to be considered for our list. And there are some truly great novels about the origin and role of laws in society that shouldn’t go unmentioned. Darkness At Noon by the great Hungarian novelist Arthur Koestler, about the 1930s Moscow show trials, is certainly one. Then there’s The Book of Daniel, E.L. Doctorow’s 1971 masterpiece based on the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial. And Z, the Kafkaesque 1967 novel by Vassilis Vassilikos about a judge investigating a political murder. Or James Gould Cozzens’ By Love Possessed, a highly acclaimed lawyer novel that sat atop the New York Times best-seller list in 1957 until it was supplanted by Anatomy of a Murder.

Some of our judges felt so strongly about their choices that they’ve written short essays:

Peter Orner: Benito Cereno, by Herman Melville
Thane Rosenbaum: Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
David Lat: Defending Jacob, by William Landay
Michelle Zierler: In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
Roz Myers: The Just and the Unjust, by James Cozzens


Benjamin Brafman is the principal of Brafman & Associates in New York City and specializes in criminal law with an emphasis on white-collar criminal defense. He has represented a wide range of high-profile celebrities, business leaders, lawyers and other professionals in significant criminal cases throughout the country.

Denny Chin is a judge for the New York City-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He served as a judge for the Southern District of New York from 1994 through 2010, and presided over cases involving, for example, Megan’s Law, the Million Youth March, Al Franken’s use of the phrase “Fair and Balanced” in the title of a book, the Naked Cowboy, the Google Books settlement, the United Nations Oil for Food Program, an Afghan warlord charged with conspiring to import heroin, and the guilty plea and sentencing of financier Bernard L. Madoff.

Susana Darwin is a lawyer who serves as executive editor of ABA Business Law Section book publishing. She has been active in politics for more than 25 years and currently focuses on the quality and diversity of Illinois’ judiciary as a member of the executive committee of Cook County’s Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening. Darwin is also a filmmaker, having recently completed the narrative short film Hatboxes, which she wrote and directed.

Daniel J. Kornstein is a founding partner of Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard in New York City. Kornstein is a graduate of Yale Law School, a past president of the Law and Humanities Institute and past chair of the Committee on Law and Literature of the New York County Lawyers Association. He has published seven nonfiction books and numerous articles about law.

David Lat is the founder of Above the Law, a legal news website, and the author of a forthcoming novel, Supreme Ambitions (ABA Flagship).

Jon Malysiak is an executive editor for the Flagship imprint of ABA Publishing, the book publishing division of the American Bar Association. During his 16-year career in publishing, he has worked in a variety of editorial capacities including owning his own literary agency where he represented a variety of authors to top publishers. When Jon isn’t acquiring new projects or editing manuscripts, he is busy launching the production of his first play, Children of Privilege, which is scheduled to debut this fall.

Michael P. Maslanka practices employment law in Dallas. He also writes a column called the Literate Lawyer.

Roz Myers, J.D., M.A., teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice on subjects related to jurisprudence, crime victimization, restorative justice, and the moral gap between justice and law. As a writer and editor, she has served for more than 17 years as the managing editor and legal columnist for journals published by Civic Research Institute, and her work in other areas of law has appeared in publications by West, Matthew Bender, and other major legal publishers. She is a doctoral candidate at The Graduate Center of CUNY, focusing on hate crimes and responsive legislation.

Peter Orner is the author of the just published new story collection, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge (Little, Brown, 2013) as well as two novels, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo and Love and Shame and Love. Orner’s first book, Esther Stories won the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Orner is also the editor of two non-fiction books, Underground America, about immigration, and Hope Deferred, set in Zimbabwe. Orner has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and holds a JD from Northeastern University. Currently, Orner is a Professor at San Francisco State University. He lives in Bolinas, California.

Herman Palarz is a Los Angles trial lawyer and an avid reader. Palarz is a graduate of the University of Southern California School of Law, a past-president of the Beverly Hills Bar Association and a member of the ABA’s Screening Committee for the Silver Gavel Awards.

Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and law professor at Fordham University, where he is director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. He also is the editor of Law Lit: From Atticus Finch to The Practice: A Collection of Great Writing About the Law. Rosenbaum’s favorite stage play is Macbeth.

Paul Washington is senior vice president, deputy general counsel and corporate secretary of Time Warner Inc. A graduate of Fordham Law School, Washington clerked for Judge David S. Tatel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and for U.S. Supreme Court Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and David H. Souter. He is an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School and serves on the boards of several cultural, civic and professional nonprofit organizations.

Ralph Weber is a Milwaukee trial lawyer who has tried many multi-week trials in diverse subject areas during his 30-year career. He has taught Trial Advocacy at Marquette University Law School for more than 15 years and created The Trial Science Institute, a jury research facility. Weber also co-edited the best-selling Dear Americans: Letters from the Desk of Ronald Reagan (Doubleday, 2003).

Michelle Zierler’s legal career has included stints at Miramax Films, Canal+ (in Paris) and Playboy Entertainment. A graduate of New York University’s law school, she is the director of program in Law and Journalism and professor of legal writing at New York Law School and an avid patron of the arts.

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