The Makings of a Great Lawyer

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Book/film List / Legal Fictions

What separates a “great” lawyer from a merely good one? Graham Moore’s new novel The Last Days of Night gives us what I think is a persuasive answer to that fascinating question.

The Last Days of Night tells the story of Paul Cravath, a 26 year old recent law graduate, who in 1888 suddenly becomes lead defense counsel for the industrialist George Westinghouse in one of the most famous patent cases of all time. Thomas Edison had sued Westinghouse for infringement of his light bulb patent. Actually Edison brought 312 individual cases asking for a total of 1 billion dollars in damages. It was one of the biggest cases of all time, but Cravath’s first. The reader gets an extra jolt of pleasure from knowing that this neophyte lawyer will go on to be the name partner in perhaps the most famous law firm in the world.

Moore’s historical novel tells the story of Cravath’s handling of the case and, in so doing, the lessons he learns about the practice of law, and himself. Moore even throws in a romance with a beautiful opera singer who becomes Cravath’s wife. The book also provides the lay reader WITH a comprehensible explanation of the scientific issues behind the case as well as a vibrant portrait of life in New York City at the end of the 19th Century.

One reason that Moore is able to provide us a riveting narrative from start to finish is his liberty as novelist to re-arrange the “facts” to create the most interesting story. He admits that his narrative even presents events as true that may not have happened. This historical fiction may be almost as much fiction as it is history. Still I think his “based on a true story” approach to history does not prevent Moore from providing us not only an excellent entertainment, but also teaching us a lot about how science actually works.

But I recommend the book to you for A different reason– I believe that the qualities that Mr. Moore tells us “make” great scientists are the same ones that make great lawyers like Paul Cravath. Thomas Edison believed that there are three qualities necessary to be a great scientist. First, you have to imagine a new future– a desirable state of affairs that does not presently exist. In the late 19th Century a world where light conquered darkness was such an idea. Then you have TO devise a means to make that hypothetical future a reality. In the “light bulb” case this turned out to be “alternating current”(AC) that allowed electricity to travel long distances. Finally you have to “sell” the idea and the means to the actors who can make things happen. In the “light bulb” case IT was the Wall Street investors who could finance the “wiring” of the world.

I will not spoil your reading pleasure by describing Paul Cravath’s lawyering in detail. But I am confident that readers of Moore’s novel will discover that Cravath’s method in handling of the Westinghouse litigation sounds very much like the idea/ means/, sell triad that Edison ascribes to great science. First, he imagined a “future” that was congenial to his client’s interests. Then he created the legal mechanism that could make that future a reality. Finally, he used his persuasive skills to “sell” both the idea and the means to the parties that had the power to make it a reality.

Albert Einstein once opined that while you have to learn the rules in science, you also have to play the game better than anyone else. In Paul’s case, he had to know the legal rules, but imagination and craft were the weapons that allowed him to play the game to win. Cravath didn’t best his opponents by subtle distinctions of applicable case law. He outsmarted them with creative ideas and clever strategies.

There has always been a temptation to “upgrade” law’s intellectual status by treating it as a “science.” The most recent example is the “law and economics” movement that uses the methodology of economic science to evaluate the “efficiency” of legal rules. Moore’s book illustrates that no matter how we choose to describe the study of law the practice of law remains more an art than a science. Moreover, Moore’s book suggests that the same is also true about the practice of great science.


  1. charles farnsworth says

    John,This indeed sounds like a guileful lawyer; I’ll try to read it.Have I told you of A Time to Lose, written by Paul E. Wilson, the lawyer who fulfilled his duty as asst. AG in Kansas by representing the state and the board of education in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, et al.,although he considered discrimination repugnant? He was guileful in his own way as he did his job. I’ll lend you my copy if you are interested.Chuck


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