John Adams, Esq.

Slate's blog on legal issues.
March 30 2008 4:26 PM

John Adams, Esq.

Tonight, HBO offers Episode Four in the gripping seven-part mini-series, John Adams .  No doubt, each viewer takes something different away from the series; here is my modest contribution.

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What I enjoyed in the early episodes was seeing such deep political, philosophical, and legal argument coming from a practicing attorney. 

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Today, of course, our world is much more stratified:  the lawyers practice law, the professors engage in abstract legal/philosophical debates, and the politicians debate in the arena of government.  Rarely do players cross from one sphere to another, and even less commonly do they occupy multiple spheres at once.

What a far cry from the founding era!  John Adams not only entered the political arena while practicing law full-time, he even maintained his practice until December 1777, when he participated in his last case at the bar.  (According to The Legal Papers of John Adams , his last case was Penhallow v. The Lusanna , a prize cause in the Court Maritime of the State of New Hampshire.  Unbelievably, that case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1795 .)  According to the preface to his collected Legal Papers , he briefly considered returning to full-time practice after his presidential term ended, but never did.

The best example of the founding-era lawyer-writer is, of course, Alexander Hamilton, who despite a full-time practice found the time to write his Federalist Papers -- his contribution to one of the most cogent arguments of political theory in modern times -- on the side!  (As biographer Ron Chernow once said at a book fair, "he was moonlighting the Federalist Papers!")

No doubt, both legal practice and the legal academy have changed since the founding era, and it's far-fetched to think that an Adams or Hamilton could have nearly the same impact on legal debate from a full-time practice as they did in their respective moments of achievement.  Legal practice is perhaps too time-consuming and lucrative; legal teaching and writing is perhaps too stove-piped and insulated and segregated.  The lucky few who exist in both worlds are the exceptions, not the rule.

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