As a recent law school graduate, I read John Steele Gordon’s “Reforming the Law” (“The Business of America,” September) with interest. Mr. Gordon is quite correct in ascribing the success of Dudley Field’s code to the efforts of lawyers, but he goes astray when he quotes Henry VI, Part II as support for his proposition that lawyers are normally part of the problem and not of the solution.
Shakespeare’s oft-quoted line should be taken in context. Henry VI was the last English king of the House of Lancaster. The House of York believed it held a better claim to the Crown. When a popular uprising, Jack Cade’s Rebellion, occurred in 1450, the Yorkists seized the opportunity to challenge Henry VI and (eventually) drive him from the throne. This conflict began what is usually known as the “Wars of the Roses.”
In Act 3, Scene 1, York admits that he has “seduced a headstrong Kentishman, John Cade of Ashford, to make commotion, as full well he can.” Later, in the scene quoted by Mr. Gordon, Cade promises the impossible and calls it reformation: seven halfpenny loaves of bread for a penny, a three-hooped pot with ten hoops, no more money, eating and drinking always at Cade’s expense, and so on. It is at this point that one of Cade’s collaborators exclaims that “first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
In context, Shakespeare’s words do not attack lawyers; they support them as standing guard over the public interest. Notwithstanding the occasional scoundrel, such a concept of lawyers remains true to this day.