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The 5,000-Year-Old Lawyer

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R. Blain Andrus
Photo by Gerry McIntyre

As R. Blain Andrus tells it, he was jogging through the streets of Reno, Nev., one day when a random thought ran through his mind: Who was the first lawyer? Seeking an answer to that question started Andrus, who practices real estate and mining law as a shareholder at Woodburn and Wedge in Reno, down a road that led him to write his first book. Lawyer: A Brief 5,000 Year History was released in late 2009 by ABA Publishing.

From the first chapter, Andrus uses wit and irreverence to spice up his story of how the practice of law developed as part of human civilization. He opens by going back to biblical times and asking a provocative question: Could Adam and Eve have been saved with the help of a good lawyer to defend them against God’s charge that they committed original sin? Andrus opines that Adam and Eve would have needed separate counsel, so he assigns them Vinnie (to Adam) and Sal (to Eve), then goes on to assess the arguments each might have made.

Next up: the state’s case against Cain in the murder of his brother, Abel. God condemns Cain, saying that Abel’s “blood crieth unto me from the ground.” Andrus uses a discussion of DNA blood evidence and the O.J. Simpson case to suggest that, if Cain had had legal counsel, that evidence might not have been enough to invoke God’s judgment.

Throughout 435 pages of text, including a who’s who of lawyers in history, Andrus analyzes the le-gal profession’s evolution from ancient times to the modern day. He isn’t shy about offering his opinions about what that history means, either. Andrus concludes that lawyers evolved over many eras into “highly efficient scavenger mutts.”

He acknowledges that his quest to find “Homo erectus legalus”—his term for the first lawyer—unearthed no single ancestor to the profession. “Nevertheless,” Andrus tells readers in the book’s prologue, “if you make it through the mix of broad sweeps and fine detail that lies ahead, I believe you will come away with a good sense of the primal ooze that gave rise to the first lawyer and the religious, cultural, philosophical, economic and political forces that have preserved ‘him’ from extinction—at least so far.”

In the interview that follows, Andrus describes some of the things he learned about the law—and himself—while writing his first book.


ABA Journal: how did your book, Lawyer: A Brief 5,000 Year History, come about?

Andrus: I thought to myself, “I’ve been at this profession for a long time, and I don’t really know the history of it. Who was the first lawyer?” I started looking for a book to answer that question. I had no intent of actually writing this book.

I happened to find some books by Assyriologists. I also started reading law books by Lipit-Ishtar and Hammurabi [both rulers of ancient Mesopotamian civilizations]. I was dumbstruck by how scribes drafted deeds that had granting language, penalty clauses and legal descriptions. I’m thinking, “This is what I do. This is the connection!”

I have some religious training, so I took the two threads—the re ligious and secular—to see where they met. I started with the religious side to see what the legal tradition is in the Bible, the Torah and the Quran. Then I went to the Greeks and Romans to see where all these rivulets funnel together. I did it for my own purposes at first and then realized that nobody had looked at this 5,000-year arc.

ABAJ: Had you done any writing before?

Andrus: I’d always liked writing, and I wrote mostly poetry. My youn ger brother, Mark Andrus, was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing As Good as It Gets. I went to the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards with him. So there’s always been a family connection to writing.

ABAJ: This book is serious yet playful. Why that tone? And how do you expect readers to read it—as a continuous narrative or as a series of essays?

Andrus: I wanted to play with words, writing structure and sentences to make the book accessible to those who aren’t lawyers. I think the book is like a series of essays. Between each of the six slabs in the book that move from ancient to mod ern times, I do an introduction: Here’s where we’ve been and where we’re going to go. You can read any of the sections as a standalone.

ABAJ: Who is the audience?

Andrus: I hate to sound like I’m shotgunning, but I really think my audience is the reading public who are interested in: Why do we have lawyers? What is this legal profession about? Is it good or bad? You can read about Thomas Jefferson and have a much better understanding of how he was trained. You can understand Abraham Lincoln and why he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation like a bill of lading.

I also think it’s for those in college who might be interested in going to law school and are making a decision about whether this is a profession they want to get into. It’s definitely for first-year law students to get oriented with what the law school experience is going to be like, and it’s for practicing lawyers, too.


Hear Blain Andrus talk about the lawyer’s “creation story” and about his favorite lawyers in all of history.

ABAJ: Was there anything that surprised you while researching the book?

Andrus: I was surprised by how similar the practice of law has been over the 5,000 years covered by the book. I was also surprised by the willingness of lawyers to scavenge and use concepts from every corner of human and divine ideas, and the historical importance of rhetoric, drama and emotion in the practice of law. I was also surprised by the human struggle to overcome the pettiness of a supposedly educated group toward Jews, African-Ameri cans, women and so on.

ABAJ: Do you have a favorite story from the book?

Andrus: One of my favorite stories has to do with William Jennings Bryan and his confrontation with Clarence Darrow [during the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial”]. It illustrates the importance of facts. Bryan has typically been portrayed onstage, in the movies and in popular culture as a Christian fundamentalist nut. But the truth is that Bryan had a range of motives for resisting the teaching of evolutionary theory to children. As I point out in the book, during this time period many evolutionists were pushing for changes in the law to allow for the forced sterilization of “inferior stock.” In fact, not long after the Scopes trial, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a sterilization law in Virginia.

ABAJ: What conclusion did you reach about lawyers?

Andrus: My conclusion is that lawyers in most societies and most periods of time have generally been good externalities, as they say in economics. It’s not just litigators but lawyers like me who help move property in commerce. In other words, societies that reach a certain point of economic development produce such things as pollution and lawyers—bad externalities and good externalities. The other takeaway is that lawyers are scavengers, and I say that with all due respect. What makes law hard is the breadth of it. You should know about economics, race, society in general, history, political science, whatever. Most lawyers scavenge from all these areas and use the information to help clients.

ABAJ: Did you learn anything about yourself while writing the book?

Andrus: Perhaps the most important thing I learned is that I could do it. As the joke goes, how do you eat an elephant? One bit at a time. How do you write a 400-page book? One page at a time. The first page was the hardest. But as the project progressed and I could see the threads coming together, the drive for completion became much more about heart than head.

I also learned where, as a lawyer, I fit in. Most societies have a story about their creation and development: the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Torah, the New Testament, the Upanishads. My book pales in comparison to such great works, but it’s nevertheless an attempt to construct a narrative for the creation and development of lawyers.

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