I don’t recall how the conversation started. I do remember that the attorney, a generation older than we newbie bar members, said, “If you want to be a trial lawyer, read a novel a week.” I was not the only listener who looked quizzical. He continued, “To be good at trials you have to understand human nature, and the best way to learn human nature is to read good novels.” He repeated, “Read a novel a week.” Since he had a reputation as a stellar trial attorney, I registered his remark. My first reaction was to think that there might be something in his pronouncement, but I also quickly concluded, “It has to be better than reading advance sheets.”
Court decisions are eventually published in bound volumes, but back in the day, a considerable lag intervened between the time the court issued an opinion and the decision’s appearance in the official report. Today, the opinions are filed online as soon as they are rendered, and there is immediate access to them. When I started as an attorney, though, there was no internet. Instead, in New York, a weekly magazine-like publication was available containing a week’s worth of opinions by the New York courts. These were called advance sheets.
I spent a good part of my working day as a Legal Aid attorney waiting in the inefficient Manhattan courtrooms for a case to be called. I initially filled the time by reading books, but this brought on the ire of the court officers. I could understand that a newspaper with its rustling pages might be an irritant, but, for reasons I never understood, those officers also forbade the reading of books. I learned, however, that I could read my case files. Preparing for the upcoming hearing was acceptable to the court personnel.
Then I tried reading an advance sheet. The court officer came over for chastisement, but when I held it up, he saw what it was and walked away. I assumed that he thought the reading was preparation for a case about to be called. From then on, I carried advance sheets to court. This not only passed the time better than sitting dumbly waiting for something to do, it also advanced my legal education. The front of the advance sheets broke down the enclosed decisions into legal subject matters, and I read every decision on criminal law and criminal procedure because that was what I was practicing. Most of the opinions were mundane, but from reading them I got a thorough grounding in New York criminal law and procedure.
However, even before the advice from the seasoned attorney, I had read novels, and I continued to do so afterwards. I did read them in the courthouse, but not in a courtroom when court was in session. My memory of Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray is bound up with memories of the Brooklyn Criminal Courthouse. I was working a week of night court where the court was in session from 6 PM until 1 AM, grueling for many reasons. The judge, however, took numerous breaks, and I made significant dents in Vanity Fair. I was entranced with the character and name “Amelia,” and my difficult work was made a bit more bearable whenever I could dip into Thackeray’s created world drawing me away from the real world I was dealing with of poverty, violence, ignorance, and crime.
(Concluded on August 3)