Books, Movies, and Lawyers Who Risk Becoming Heroes

 I want to thank Dean O’Hear for inviting me to serve as the second alumni blogger of the month.


The question of the month asks for a favorite movie or a novel about law practice. Claiming the right established by Professor Murray to tweak the question, I want to mention a movie from the 1960’s and a biography published in 2008.

The movie is A Man for All Seasons. It is based on the play by Robert Bolt. The movie won several academy awards, including best picture. It focuses on a critical point in the life of Sir Thomas More.

The book is Crossing Hitler, by Benjamin Carter Hett. It is published by Oxford University Press. The book’s subject is Hans Litten. Less well known than Thomas More, Litten practiced law in Germany during the last years of the Weimer Republic. 

Thomas More was a pillar of the 16th Century English society in which he lived. Hans Litten was an anti-establishment figure in pre-World War II Germany. Both are complex men, and both risked becoming heroes at least in part by being lawyers in societies undergoing transformational change.

More’s England is in the throes of theological and social upheaval influenced by a technological revolution brought about by the printing press. More must decide whether to support a king and government who in the name of reform seek to overthrow the old order, and who suppress or ignore rights grounded in the common law or the Magna Carta. More’s decision costs him his standing in society, his property, and eventually his life.

Litton’s Germany is attempting to create a democracy amid the ruins of a society prostrated by war and a punitive peace. Litten uses Germany’s legal procedures to expose what he believes are the excesses of the Weimer government, and the fallacy of the Nazi party’s attempt to portray itself as a peaceful, democratic party. He subpoenaes and cross-examines Adolf Hitler concerning the Nazi Party’s activities at a critical point in the party’s rise to power in Germany. This and other actions cost Litten his practice, his freedom, and eventually his life.

Recent technological and communications revolutions are reshaping our institutions. Today’s lawyers practice law in the midst of this transformation.  The stories of Thomas More and Hans Litten show us that we are not the first lawyers to practice law in such times. Whether we want to or not, lawyers have a role to play in the reshaping of institutions during times of change. In extreme cases, that role may require that lawyers risk becoming heroes.

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