The law and lawyers have not always fared well in literature. From Shakespeare ("The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers") to Dickens ("the law is a ass"), writers of fiction have found the law and its practitioners to be an easy target. At the same time, however, authors have used the law as a basis for tackling important themes: the definition of justice, the difficulty of assigning moral responsibility, the tension between the needs of society and individual freedom, and the justification for punishing crime. As a source of drama and entertainment, the trials and conflicts in which lawyers become embroiled provide novelists with endless inspiration.
There are so many excellent novels about the law that the following list could easily be expanded tenfold. This list is presented with apologies to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ursula LeGuin, Richard Wright and all the other authors who have written astonishing novels that touch on profound ideas of importance to the law, even if the law was not the stories' central focus.
10. The Ox-Bow Incident (1940)
Who should enforce the law? Victims, individual members of society, or a government acting on their behalf? A neglected classic, The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark addresses the theme of vigilantism as the key characters debate taking the law into their own hands. One character complains that "law, as the books have it, is slow and full of holes." True enough, but the characters eventually learn that as imperfect as the law might be, it is more likely to achieve justice than individuals who claim the authority to mete out their own punishments, dispensing with trials, proof and other safeguards that protect the innocent from unjust punishment.
9. The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
The important role of the United States Constitution as a guarantor of intellectual freedom is at the heart of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel envisions a future in which a religious theocracy forms a republic, suspends the Constitution, and enforces a unified religion while subjugating women as concubines and child-bearers. Given that women in Atwood’s dystopian future are not allowed to read books, it is ironic that many school districts have attempted to ban The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel is a testament to freedom of thought, freedom of religion, and the equality of rights as fundamental components of a just legal system.
8. A Frolic of His Own (1994)
Lawyers play starring roles in novels more often than judges, but in A Frolic of His Own, William Gaddis satirizes self-important judges and a judicial system that too often elevates arcane precedent above the need for justice. Yet lawyers also get skewered in a very funny novel that makes serious points about the nature of language and how lawyers and judges wield it to their own ends. The opening sentences ("Justice? — You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law") set the tone for a National Book Award winner that mocks lawyers, judges and litigants who misuse the law to further greed, corruption and personal ambition.
7. Presumed Innocent (1987)
Legal thrillers mix courtroom and personal drama as lawyers take on controversial clients and causes, often placing their own lives and reputations at risk. The best legal thrillers illuminate the workings of the justice system and the moral conflicts that the law and lawyers must resolve. John Grisham, Richard North Patterson and John Lescroart are among the current giants in the field, although Earl Stanley Gardner (who died in 1970) probably created the most famous fictional lawyer in Perry Mason. Michigan Supreme Court Justice, John Voelker (using the pen name Robert Traver), made a key contribution to the genre with Anatomy of a Murder (1958), an acclaimed novel that was based on his own experience as a criminal defense attorney.
Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent should be near the top of any legal thriller fan’s list of favorite novels. Apart from telling the riveting story of a prosecutor who is falsely accused of murdering his wife, concluding with one of the best surprise endings in the genre, Turow brought literary merit to the modern legal thriller by imbuing his characters with multifaceted personalities that reveal their inner turmoil. Presumed Innocent incorporates a fascinating "nuts-and-bolts" presentation of pretrial preparation and trial advocacy, while shedding light on the unfortunate degree to which politics can influence justice.
6. The Stranger (1942)
Albert Camus wrote absurdist novels of philosophy that, in the words of the Nobel Prize Committee, "illuminate the problems of the human conscience in our times." The Stranger (L'Étranger) tells the story of an emotionless man named Meursault who, in a moment of confusion, shoots and kills the man who attacked his friend. Meursault’s inability to express remorse (or any other emotion) causes the judge at his trial to condemn him to death. Meursault’s complaint near the novel’s end—that no person has the right to judge someone else—echoes one of the most difficult questions in the philosophy of law: How can flawed humans, incapable of truly understanding the motivations of people that they do not know, sit in judgment of other flawed humans?
5. Les Misérables (1862)
Victor Hugo’s moving novel of a peasant who is condemned to death for stealing a loaf of bread is probably the most famous literary portrayal of injustice. The sentence imposed upon Jean Valjean (later commuted to life imprisonment) clearly does not fit the crime (in the modern language of the law, it lacks proportionality). Apart from motivating readers to think about excessive punishment, the novel can be viewed as an indictment of legal systems that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.
4. Billy Budd (1924)
Herman Melville’s "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street," featuring a lawyer who can’t bring himself to fire the clerk who answers requests with "I would prefer not to," appeals to lawyers who understand the frustration of working with unproductive employees, and appeals to employees in every field who would love to emulate Bartleby’s lethargy. Yet Melville’s posthumously published Billy Budd is the novel that law professors use to examine competing philosophies of law. The story of a sea captain who executes a sailor who accidentally kills the man who accused him of mutiny can be viewed in a variety of ways. Is the captain a good person trapped by a bad law, or is he a man who lacks the courage to challenge bad law? Billy Budd also illustrates the importance of due process and the right to counsel (neither of which are afforded to Billy) as safeguards against unwarranted punishment.
3. The Trial (1925)
Franz Kafka’s surrealistic account of a man accused of an unspecified crime, who is worn down by a judicial system that will never bring him to trial, is often regarded as symbolizing the elevation of bureaucracy above justice. Apart from being an indictment of legal systems that do not respect fundamental rights (including the accused’s entitlement to notice of the accusation), The Trial is a continuing reminder that people who do not understand the law need a lawyer who will help them cope with the frustration of navigating a system that they view as incomprehensible.
2. Bleak House (1852)
Sometimes lawsuits seem to take forever to resolve. Litigants who are frustrated with the glacial pace of litigation, and cynical about the financial motivation of lawyers to keep lawsuits alive, identify with Charles Dickens’s description of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, a case that continues from one generation to the next, as long as the parties can still afford to pay their legal fees. Generations of readers have turned to Dickens for absorbing plots and complex characters. Those virtues are on full display in Bleak House, but they are almost secondary to the story of the lawsuit. Protections have been added to the legal system since Dickens’s day that encourage a more expeditious resolution of legal claims, but Bleak House is an enduring indictment of civil justice systems that are more concerned with money than justice.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird tops almost every list of favorite books with a legal theme. The novel has inspired generations of students to apply to law school. Atticus Finch, the novel’s protagonist, continues to serve as a model of honor, dedication and courage for idealistic lawyers. His willingness to fight for his moral convictions exemplifies the kind of heroism to which lawyers often aspire.
To Kill a Mockingbird won a Pulitzer Prize for its themes of racial injustice, intolerance and the destruction of innocence, but it won the hearts of the public by showing how a lawyer’s actions can elevate justice, compassion and human dignity above intolerance and cruelty. Go Set a Watchman, which was originally publicized as Lee's sequel to the novel but later confirmed to be the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, was published in 2015.