“. . . you will discover during the course of these memoirs that, although I only feel truly alive and happy in law courts, I have a singular distaste for the law.”
Rumpole and the Younger Generation is the first of Sir John Mortimer’s short story’s chronicling the illustrious career of one Horace Rumpole, barrister (while it is a short story one can find it in book form published by Penguin, which is how I happened to read it).
Mr. Rumpole is a barrister that spends his days fighting for Justice in the Old Bailey (England’s Criminal Court for those of you not in the know). While the whole of the story deals with the law in one way or the other, I will only address two of the substantive themes that occur within the story: the characterization of Rumpole as the lawyer’s lawyer and Rumpole’s ideas about criminal law as being at the heart of the legal system.
Mortimer has created the quintessential English barrister in Rumpole. In and out of court he is quick and witty, he can qoute lines of Wordsworth to fit most situations, and he very adept in court as well. At the same time though he can be reflective and philosophical. In short, Rumpole is the type of lawyer that other lawyer’s like to read about; he is a lawyer’s lawyer. Let’s face it, we lawyer’s revel in the idea of making a judge look like a fool in court and getting away with it. We love the idea of solving the case at the last minute with innovative surprise evidence. And despite our dubious reputation we like to think that we really do seek justice when we go to court. Rumpole embodies one of the great lawyer archetypes, which I’ll dub the gentleman lawyer. He doesn’t have the perfect record or the cut throat persona that we often see displayed in other lawyer characters, what he has though is charisma and charm. The way in which he carries himself allows him to seem nonthreatening, but this is his greatest weapon in the courtroom. He is a lawyer that loves the court room, yet retains human dimensions outside the courtroom, too. To sum up he is more than a good lawyer; Rumpole is a good man.
The second theme that I will deal with revolves around Rumpoles ideas about criminal law. My father once told me that the most fun he ever had while practicing law was when he was a criminal lawyer. This idea is somewhat reflected in Rumpole’s statement that a “person who is tired of crime . . . is tired of life.” In the story the head of Rumpole’s chambers is retring and it is time to choose a new head of chambers. While Rumpole is the most senior barrister, he also has an entirely criminal practice, and there are some in the chambers that feel as though this is the wrong direction to be taking. Thus Rumpole must defend his devotion to criminal law when it is asserted by his mentor (and the out going head of chambers) that “too much criminal work does rather lower the standing of a chambers.” When one lawyer states that the chambers should move more towards tax Rumpole sarcastically responds “compared to the wonderful world of tax, crime is totally trivial.” This conflict represents a real conflict in law, and one that is troubling. There is not money in criminal law, glory maybe, but no money. Yet criminal law may be the most important type of law there is. It is through criminal proceeding that the true measure of justice is found. If we can depend on the criminal courts to be just for others then they are likely to be just for ourselves as well. When, though, we are in an advesarial system of law and criminals are routinely represented by over worked public defenders, second rate lawyers, or even law students the justice in the system can be easily challenged. Quite simply, we need more Rumpole’s in criminal law, but we have no way of luring them there (as criminals are commonly not well off).