What 'Wolf Hall' taught me about practicing law
Cindy Hong. Photo by Emily Truong.
Every practicing attorney is familiar with the prelaw literary canon—that list of books every law student should read. A Civil Action, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Buffalo Creek Disaster. These books are meant to inspire a love of justice, hard work and a desire to fight for society’s underdogs.
We don’t usually include in the canon stories about lawyers with questionable ethics and political ambition who represent the rich and powerful. But such a work, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy and its depiction of the ever-scheming Thomas Cromwell, molded me into the lawyer I am today.
In summer 2010, I was a reluctant incoming law student. As a college senior in fall 2008, I had seen jobs vanish overnight after Lehman Brothers’ demise. That’s when I signed up for LSAT classes. I figured that law school was a good way to ride out the recession. I didn’t have ambitions about becoming the next Atticus Finch or the first Asian SCOTUS justice; I mostly was fueled by a desire to appease my parents by finding a respectable way to pass the time.
I Googled “books to read before law school” and dug into the resulting titles. In the evenings, I supplemented my syllabus with films such as Erin Brockovich and The Informant! I enjoyed the narratives but couldn’t relate to the David and Goliath stories that they depicted. I was glad we had crusaders such as A Civil Action’s Jan Schlichtmann fighting for environmental justice, but I didn’t know whether I could emulate him. I didn’t know whether I could risk my relationships, physical well-being and future career to pursue long-shot cases against corporate foes.
When classes began in late August, my law school reiterated the noble purpose of our new profession. Addressing the class of 2013, the dean referenced a long list of alumni who had gone on to stand up for everyday citizens in public service. I wondered: If I couldn’t channel the likes of Finch, did I have what it took to be a lawyer? Everywhere I looked, the role models presented to us students were people who had chosen to follow their principles, rather than market forces. Our professors were brilliant, and they had chosen a career writing about legal theory over practicing law.
Then I discovered Wolf Hall. First published in 2009, Wolf Hall tells the infamous story of King Henry VIII—his marriages, his renunciation of Catholicism, the beheadings that he ordered—from the perspective of Cromwell, a lawyer who was King Henry’s chief minister. When the novel opens, Cromwell is a mere assistant/employee of Cardinal Wolsey, perhaps the most powerful clergyman in England and a confidante of King Henry. Wolf Hall tracks Cromwell’s rise until he surpasses his predecessor.
In the character of Cromwell, I saw someone who dealt with moral ambiguities. Someone whose views did not necessarily align with those of his clients. Someone from a middle-class background who served royalty. I was intrigued. He was different from the Finches of the world who saw the world in black in white.
In Wolf Hall, we see Cromwell make decision after decision to help King Henry accomplish his goal of removing and eventually imprisoning Anne Boleyn. While I was sympathetic to the doomed queen’s plight, I also understood Cromwell’s choices. From his actions, I learned a few key lessons.
First, I learned the importance of being open to new information—of knowing what you don’t know. Mantel paints Cromwell in sharp contrast to Sir Thomas More, the author of Utopia. More is certain of his beliefs. So certain that he refuses to acknowledge King Henry as head of the Church of England and is sentenced to death as a result.
Cromwell questions More’s approach: “Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little.”
Second, Cromwell recognizes that there’s a difference between the truth and the facts sufficient for a certain judicial outcome. The case against Boleyn rests on a finding that she was unfaithful to King Henry. At the beginning of Bring Up the Bodies, the second book in the trilogy, Cromwell debates with his son whether Boleyn actually had other lovers.
Mantel writes: “When Gregory says, ‘Are they guilty?’ he means, ‘Did they do it?’ But when [Cromwell] says, ‘Are they guilty?’ he means, ‘Did the court find them so?’”
Spoiler alert: Mantel never discloses whether Boleyn did it. And, of course, that is the point. Cromwell had to act in the face of ambiguity and be prepared to live with its consequences. For the rest of the series, Cromwell experiences moments of a guilty conscience. He reflects that, “much occurred to shame us.”
Lastly, Cromwell sees humanity even in his foes. While plotting against Boleyn, he also finds common ground in her role as a young mother. Boleyn reminds him of his wife, Elizabeth, who, along with their daughters, died from the “sweating sickness,” leaving Cromwell to parent their surviving son alone.
I thought about these and other Wolf Hall lessons often as a young lawyer. In my first job at a corporate law firm representing large, publicly traded companies, I distinguished the facts of what happened from the analysis of whether what happened violated regulations. In my second job as a judicial law clerk, I considered the practical effects of the court’s decisions, particularly on the people behind the filings.
While I appreciated Cromwell’s techniques, I also learned from his mistakes—especially his fatal mistake of conflating his importance with that of his client’s. By the end of the Wolf Hall trilogy, Cromwell completes his fall from grace. The enemies he made during his rise ultimately accuse him of traitorous crimes. In the last few pages of The Mirror and the Light, the third book in the trilogy, we see Cromwell imprisoned and beheaded, perhaps a victim of his making.
In my 10 years of practice since graduating from law school, the lessons of the Wolf Hall trilogy have stayed with me. I return to them again and again as I navigate muddy situations in the legal world, all the while trying to stay humble.
Cindy Hong is an attorney based in Seattle who specializes in antitrust law. When not practicing law, Hong enjoys reading fiction and exploring the outdoors with her toddler son.
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