Book Review – The Lawyer’s Song: Navigating the Legal Wilderness

In his 2010 book entitled “The Lawyer’s Song: Navigating the Legal Wilderness” (“the Song”), Hugh Duvall sings a heartfelt tune about what it means – and what it ought to mean – to be a lawyer. Written from the perspective of a lawyer-litigator, the Song is intended to reach two main audiences. For non-lawyers, the Song is meant to provide “a window into the complex intellectual, emotional and ethical frontier of [the legal] profession.” For lawyers, it is an affirmation of all that is good in the legal profession – a melody meant to “charge us up and to speed us on our way.” Mr. Duvall performs to both audiences with admirable aplomb.

A quick and engaging read, the Song pursues its purpose in a refreshingly creative style. Each chapter (or verse) focuses on a key theme of legal practice; and each is presented in two parts. The first is a vignette of a story set in 1842 Oregon in which a woman hires a guide to lead her through the backcountry in search of her husband. With the chapter’s theme as a springboard, the second part dives into a non-fictitious account of the various ways in which the issues presented in the vignette affect the day-to-day lives of present-day lawyers.

Within its verses, the Song sings of the hard realities of legal practice. These include the risk and challenge of law school, the long lonely hours of legal practice, the anguish of a case fought and lost, and the betrayal of a thankless client. These darker notes are important for any law student or aspiring lawyer to hear – especially one bedazzled by the gloss of legal practice as it appears on the big screen.

Floating above the bass register are the treble notes of the more ennobling aspects of legal practice. These include the sanctity of the lawyer-client relationship, the humility of faithful service, the decorum of loyalty, and the thrill of victory. These higher notes give the Song a more edifying tenor for those who are uncertain or otherwise cynical about the inherent dignity of a legal career, or those otherwise in need of affirmation.

As much as the Song serves to demystify some of the realities of legal practice, at the same time it also serves to enshroud it in a cloud of romanticism. For example, laced into the narrative are some pretty rosy assumptions about what it is that drives people to pursue a career in law. As Mr. Duvall puts it:

Ours is a profession to which we were called. We were always aware of its presence. The feeling. The thought. The notion that we would become lawyers…It was one’s essence. One’s being. There was no real choice involved at all.

It would be nice if this were true. But the reality is that all sorts of people go to law school (and eventually become lawyers) for far lesser reasons. Some go to law school to please their parents. Others go because they want money, security and prestige. Still others go because they don’t know what else to do with themselves. Yet once on the conveyor belt, the pressure to identify as a lawyer gets stronger and stronger. Years later, well into their careers, all too many wake up and realize that what they are doing is not their calling – that this is not their song.

The romanticism of the Song also surfaces in other verses. For example, in the verse about “passion”, Mr. Duvall notes that “[w]e cannot meet the rigorous challenges we regularly confront without passion for our work.” Lawyers, just like anybody else, are much better equipped to do their jobs when fuelled by passion. Yet the truth is that on the whole lawyers aren’t exactly known for their passion for their work. In fact, many plod their weary ways through their entire careers without much enthusiasm for their jobs at all.

While Mr. Duvall may be romantic, he is not blind. As he notes, many lawyers do such things as “take shortcuts to the prejudice of the client”, “make as much money as possible”, “gain attention for personal aggrandizement”, and “run a business as opposed to a law practice.” It is clear that Mr. Duvall is fully aware that such “imposters” exist among our ranks; the simple fact of the matter is that they are not part of his intended audience.

While such “imposters” may well not deserve admission to Mr. Duvall’s performance, I contend that they constitute a third audience that must not only attend, but also listen extra carefully. For it is to this audience that the Song carries a special – albeit implicit – message. And that message is this:

If you are not in harmony with the basic values of your profession, you must do something about it or your career and life will ever be dissonant.

In listening to the Song, should anyone find themselves scoffing or otherwise rolling their eyes in cynicism at its lyrics, then it may well be that they belong to this third audience. Should they recognize the special message the Song has for them, and should they be inspired to take corrective action, Mr. Duvall will have truly outdone himself.

Bravo, Mr. Duvall!