Interesting Legal Writing: The Legal Fiction of Lowell B. Komie, and Poems by Lawyers

Like some of the other bloggers, I am interpreting this month’s question a little loosely. I don’t have a favorite law novel or film. Instead, I am going to recommend a book of law-related short stories, The Legal Fiction of Lowell B. Komie, and then talk a little about poetry by lawyers.

First, Komie. I believe that I first read Komie’s stories because my colleague David Papke passed along a copy of one of his books to me. I really enjoyed the stories. I should explain that generally speaking, I am not much of a reader of contemporary fiction. Besides reading for work, I tend to read nonfiction and poetry. My fiction reading list is limited, most of the time, to science fiction novels and short stories, and a few of my favorite novels, which I read over and over.

But Komie’s work grabbed me. The stories were so much more human and interesting than the other popular law-related fiction I had read. Komie’s writing is spare but vibrant. He writes about the worlds he knows well, the worlds that Chicago lawyers inhabit, but he uses that particular world as a lens for viewing human nature and human experience. Probably many of Komie’s stories resonate with me because some of his best work centers on young lawyers entering, trying to enter, or working at, large law firms. As one reviewer stated, “[the Komie stories that focus on large law firm life] are exquisite in their attentiveness to detail and full of an engaging, melancholy wisdom.”

Professor James Elkins, editor of the Legal Studies Forum, has been a fan of Komie, and the essay I wrote about Komie’s work appeared in the LSF. Professor Elkins has published a number of the stories in the LSF, and made some of them available online, here. If you want to read just one, you might try Solo.

Speaking about Professor Elkins leads me to my second topic, poetry by lawyers. If you like poetry, you should be aware of Professor Elkins’ fantastically thorough website cataloging poetry by lawyers, Strangers to Us All. The world of lawyer poetry is so much more than just Wallace Stevens and Archibald Cox–which (in my view at least) is really saying something! In addition to maintaining that website, Professor Elkins has published a lot of poetry in the Legal Studies Forum over the past five years or so. If you scroll to the bottom of the “Strangers to Us All” page, you can see descriptions of the LSF issues that anthologize poetry, as well as links to some of the poetry from those volumes, made available online.

Occasionally I run across poems by lawyers elsewhere. For instance, a couple of years ago one of my sisters gave me a volume of the Grove Review for my birthday, and it contained this lovely poem by lawyer David Filer, titled “Sometimes at Sundown.”

Sometimes, at Sundown

Sometimes, just at sundown, when the hillsides
have fallen deeply into shadow, light

and wind sweep eastward, up the river
together, rattling the old cottonwoods,

roughing the water into pewter scales,
casting the landscape in perfect relief.

You know, in that instant, the secret of
happiness is being where the mystery

lasts no longer than it takes to look out,
see it, and see it resolve into dark,

as if it had been that familiar dream,
and you, ready, almost, to understand.

I think my enjoyment of poetry has something in common with my enjoyment of reading and writing about the law. Both genres demand so much attention to the precise meanings and flavors of the words, though I certainly recognize that the words are used for very different purposes in legal writing and in poetry.

David Filer made a similar observation during an interview published in that same publication (The Grove Review: A Literary Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, at 110 (Fall/Winter 2004)), in response to a question about the relationship between his legal training and his poetry:

I find it possible and interesting to do legal analysis for the same reason I write the kind of poems I write. It’s more of a distant, analytical kind of approach to things, rather than a direct engagement approach. Legal writing is very different from any form of creative writing. It’s really a process of using information and drastically limiting the conclusion that one can gain from the writing. . . . So it’s really a process of narrowing and narrowing still more what’s possible. Whereas poetry in some way is the opposite of that. . . . That is, if ‘a’ and ‘b’ then ‘c’ must follow . . . poetry is more like here’s ‘a,’ here’s ‘b,’ and maybe there are two or three things you could think about as a result of that. That might be a good poem but it sure would be a lousy legal brief.

I’d be so interested to hear from anyone else who is interested in these topics. In any event, whatever you enjoy reading, happy reading.

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