“The best way to prepare for the law is to be a well-read person”[Mr. Justice Felix Frankfurter]

Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter Reading OutsideWhat if you were a 12-year-old boy living in the USA who would be interested in “going into the law as a career” and you decided to ask a famous judge for advice? This is what M. Paul Classen Jr. from Alexandria, Virginia, did in 1954.  And this is the reply he received from Mr. Justice Felix Frankfurter:

 

My Dear Paul:

No one can be a truly competent lawyer unless he is a cultivated man.  If I were you I would forget about any technical preparation for the law.  The best way to prepare for the law is to be a well-read person.  Thus alone can one acquire the capacity to use the English language on paper and in speech and with the habits of clear thinking which only a truly liberal education can give.  No less important for a lawyer is the cultivation of the imaginative faculties by reading poetry, seeing great paintings, in the original or in easily available reproductions, and listening to great music.  Stock your mind with the deposit of much good reading, and widen and deepen your feelings by experiencing vicariously as much as possible the wonderful mysteries of the universe, and forget about your future career.

With good wishes,

Sincerely yours,

[signed]  Felix Frankfurter

From THE LAW AS LITERATURE, ed. by Ephraim London, Simon and Schuster, 1960.

What do you think about that?

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19 thoughts on ““The best way to prepare for the law is to be a well-read person”[Mr. Justice Felix Frankfurter]

  1. Anael Souffir says:

    What an interesting answer !

    According to me , most part of his answer is right and proved by the related experiences we may know but I don’t think that practice is also one of the good way to be prepare to law. We need to read learn and practice. Of course the biggest part is the reading – learning process to improve our knowledges and allow our mind to be more open and filled with new things but in order to be a lawyer, at least a good one, we have to use everything we learned as a tool to be able to practice law and not only know different approaches of the law through several fields.
    I agree with the last part of the answer, we don’t obviously need to be focus on our career but we need goals to reach and be keen for more culture.

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  2. Corinna Canale says:

    In my opinion Justice Frankfurter is partially in the correct. Surely the importance of reading, of open our minds through the experiences and the stories written or reported by different authors is crucial for a person who’s going to face the society and the life of a grown-up, as much as important is to explore the beauty of works of art like paintings and music, according to what the judge says. But to be honest, I don’t think someone can exclude neither the part of the legal preparation: to be the most complete we can, of course we need a proper “background” and social opinions formed exploring the world and its art in its different shapes, but someone who wants to become a legal expert can’t exclude a deep preparation in a more technical way to see the world. So, in my opinion, it’s indisputable that a 12-year-old child must widen his mind first, but if he’s interested in a law career perhaps he should also face something more specific regarding the law, maybe starting to see a little bit how legally works the world in which he lives. Anyway, I think that 12 years is a little soon and maybe he should ask that again in a couple of years.

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  3. Gennaro Di Martino says:

    Nowadays, in Universities, Law is manly taught from a positivist perspective. In the other hand, the context in which it becames concrete remains marginal to these studies. For this reason students often learn things in a mnemonic way, and according to me this approach doesn’t improve their critical skills.
    The letter of the judge is helpful to criticize this modus operandi. In fact, Law concerns the rules of the society so it must be written and applied according to the social context: for this reason a jurist must approach to the various aspects of the reality that surrounds him.
    A literary or an artistic movement is often a political and a social expression of the people: therefore jurists can’t be estranged from this.
    We can’t consider humanities just like hobbies, and this because they are very important regarding the cultural growth of human beings, especially for those who handle laws.
    Italian Constitution’s writers, example giving, were not only expert jurists, but also cultured men, and this has played a key role regarding the quality of our Constitution.
    For all these reasons, I agree with the judge’s point of view: lawyer’s skills can’t be just technical, and this because the cultural baggage plays a key role in their job.

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  4. Christian Gatto says:

    I agree with judge Frankfurter.
    A friend of mine told me that, when she was doing Erasmus in Spain, she asked to her professor about books for the course, and he answered her: “Are you Italian?”.
    I know that in Italian universities our approach is for the most part theorical and technical, maybe too much, but I think that it’s very important to have a complete and accurate formation.
    Of course, in Italy we need to improve the practical side of our studies. And a practical approach to how write an act, or learn how to read a judgment, or simulate a case becomes fundamental.
    Judge Frankfurter is right when he says a lawyer has to be a well-read person. A lawyer, such as a doctor, has to remember that he “plays” with other people, touching very important aspects of personal life, thus he has to remember that his behavior have a lot of consequences on other people’s life.
    In fact, a lawyer has to be well prepared on technical aspects of law, and very sensitive and emphatic, thanks to his cultural interests and preparation.

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  5. Riccardo Ciarlone says:

    I agree with Mr. Justice Felix Frankfurter because the only study of law doesn’t make you are a good lawyer or a good judge. To be excellent lawyers, in fact, you have to have a vast cultural heritage based on, not only the study of jurisprudence but also on many other studies, above all those of language. It’s not a coincidence that the opinion of Frankfurter is identical to that of J. B. White: both emphasize this link between law and literature, because they are the basic elements to be good lawyers. In fact, going against those who exalted only “technicalities” of legal studies, J.B. White and Frankfurter agreed on this “complementarity” between law and literature: it’s important for every jurist, cure language and have a great linguistic proficiency to practice rhetoric and is necessary to read, says Frankfurther, poems, admiring great works of art to relax the mind, to broaden their horizons, in short, to make the process of “self imagination” that is fundamental to any judge but above for each lawyer to defend their clients.
    I think that the Italians Faculty of Jurisprudence prepare, us guys, to be not only men of law but above all, “men of culture”, and this is demonstrated by the study of many historical materials including the philosophy of law that, having for its object the study of the living law, is able to look beyond it.
    More specifically in our “Roma Tre” University, the emblematic proof of everything I have said is given not only by the presence of this course of “Law and Humanities” but also by another course of constitutional law’s chair where were invited “jurists novelists” (including Giancarlo De Cataldo, Romanzo Criminale’s writer) to discuss their novels.
    So I mention this example to support Frankfurter’s thesis: to be good lawyers, you have to have great linguistic skills, both oral and written.
    The development of this phenomenon about “jurists novelists” confirms, without a doubt, the Frankfurter’s theory.

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  6. edoardo briganti says:

    I totally agree, i think that to became a great jurist is necessary to have an excellent mastery of the language and this can be achieved through reading a lot of novels and poetms. Besides i think that is as much important to have a great immagination and an excellent capacity of reasoning and this can be given through reading poems and novels. Consequently the best way to prepare himself for being a jurist is definitely start to read novels and poems. Obviously, started the legal career, is necessary know in depth the law.

    Edoardo Briganti

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  7. Valentina Ertola says:

    I think that being a well-read person is important not only for your profession but especially for your personal growth. The importance to have a mastery of language can’t be as fundamental as in our job. If you consider that if a lawyer makes a mistake with an expression can change completely his client’s life this point is the most important. But as lawyers we have to possess a creative mind, to find the best solution for our cases, and for the development of creativity books are the best way. So I partly agree with the judge, the fact is that I would have never answered in this way to a letter that asks me how to going into the law as a career.

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  8. Anna Brisbois says:

    The answer of Felix Frankfurter is very impressive to me and in my opinion one can see in these few lines why he has made such a career. He was not only an outstanding judge, but also an intellectual. And that is exactly what he tries to make clear to the 12-year-old boy. He explained to him, that he must open his mind to literature, art and culture. The insights obtained for example from a poem or looking at a painting, you don’t learn in a faculty of law.
    Reading is therefore especially for children the door opener to knowledge and to a later career. Frankfurter makes it clear that it is not important for a 12-year-old to think about a possible career as a lawyer, but it is important for a child to get knowledge about the world, literature and spirituality. Because that is the cornerstone of everything that comes later. No matter you are looking for a career as a lawyer, doctor or teacher. Thinking outside the box makes the difference to narrow-minded persons who think only about how they can learn everything about one special field.
    I am studying art history and I know many students of law or economics who are not interested in literature (apart from specialist literature) or art at all. They would never go voluntarily to the museum or the opera, or read a novel that has nothing to do with the study. It’s great that we have this course to think about how close Law and Humanities are to each other and that the one could not exist without the other.

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  9. ANNE VAN PAGÉE says:

    Anne van Pagée:

    In my opinion, Mr. Frankfurter is right. But of course, a lawyer needs a lot more than just being a well read person.

    When I took a course in European Law one year ago, I definitely noticed that learning law is like learning a new language. So also from this perspective I think that you have to read a lot to understand the law, and for me that meant reading a lot of cases, verdicts and laws.

    But I also agree because as a lawyer you have to read a lot to understand the society better. As I mentioned in the last blog, by reading you create empathy for other people and you understand more about what kind of situations people live in and how they behave/ act. By reading you appeal to your imagination. So by being involved with music and art you get to understand why it is so important for people to do this in their spare time: it gets your mind off of your busy/hectic job, it helps you to relax so that after this you might see things in another light because you opened up your creative side. And it gives you energy to go back to your tough job..

    You have to be a little ‘creative’ to be a lawyer, because every case is different and needs a different approach. A well read man will be able to understand society better. And the more you read, the more you learn about which way is best for you to respond/ or act in that case. Here I also see a link with history: we learn from what has been done / the way people have acted before.

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  10. Eugenio Carucci says:

    I totally agree with the Felix Frankfurter’s argumentation, in fact I believe that who has to face a legal career, has to relate himself to other people’s problems and readings in this way can be seen as a great mean to make lawyers and judges better empathize with the cases they have to deal with. It’s also easy to understand the positive effect on rethoric and writing skills that reading can generate.
    Lawyers have been considered people of a great humanist culture for ages. If we get back to where the law was born, in the ancient Rome the men who mastered the law were holders of a great knowledge and symbols of excellent oratorical ability, like Cicero, Seneca that are still nowadays studied for their great literature works, or also the members of the “Colegium Pontificium”. But during the middle ages until now, always the lawyer has been recognized as a real cultivated person, up to become sometimes a caricature like the “Avvocato Azzeccagarbugli” of “The Betrothed”. So still nowadays I believe that the knowledge of Law and the possession of a great culture must coexist in a person that works in the juridical field. In fact the problem is that in the law schools, the strict study of legal rules risks to make lawyers too arid, depriving them completely of imagination and frivolity.

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  11. Federic Baffa says:

    I agree with Mr Felix Frankfurter. I think what he says about a man in a law career being a well-read person is true.The trial itself, as our Professor Eligio Resta would say, it’s a matter of words and language: they play a major role and a lawyer must be able to understand not just the word itself but their significance in every single case. I once read a wonderful book by Gianrico Carofiglio, one of my favourite writers, which is called “La manomissione delle parole” (“The setting-free of words”) in which he also writes about a judge and how he must use words and listen to words very carefully because sometimes we tamper the words, and we are not truly aware of their power.
    I don’t agree with Mr Felix Frankfurter when he says that “no less important for a lawyer is the cultivation of the imaginative faculties by reading poetry, seeing great paintings, in the original or in easily available reproductions, and listening to great music”. I think that the cultivation of the imaginative faculties could be important but not too much. A person who can appreciate a good painting not necessarily is a good layer or a good judge; also, a person who doesn’t appreciate art and poetry is not necessarily a bad judge. Sure reading poetry can be very important for a teenager, in order to develope an emotional sensitivity which will be useful in his future career in law: but it’s not an essential condition.
    Federico Baffa

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  12. fuoritraccia says:

    I agree with Mr Felix Frankfurter. I think what he says about a man in a law career being a well-read person is true.The trial itself, as our Professor Eligio Resta would say, it’s a matter of words and language: they play a major role and a lawyer must be able to understand not just the word itself but their significance in every single case. I once read a wonderful book by Gianrico Carofiglio, one of my favourite writers, which is called “La manomissione delle parole” (“The setting-free of words”) in which he also writes about a judge and how he must use words and listen to words very carefully because sometimes we tamper the words, and we are not truly aware of their power.
    I don’t agree with Mr Felix Frankfurter when he says that “no less important for a lawyer is the cultivation of the imaginative faculties by reading poetry, seeing great paintings, in the original or in easily available reproductions, and listening to great music”. I think that the cultivation of the imaginative faculties could be important but not too much. A person who can appreciate a good painting not necessarily is a good layer or a good judge; also, a person who doesn’t appreciate art and poetry is not necessarily a bad judge. Sure reading poetry can be very important for a teenager, in order to develope an emotional sensitivity which will be useful in his future career in law: but it’s not an essential condition.
    Federico Baffa

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  13. Nora says:

    First I have to correct him, to say, „that no one can be a truly competent lawyer unless the person is a cultivated person.“
    For me Frankfurter‘s language argument is really convincing, because he underlines the importance of rhetorical skills for a lawyer. Of course it is even more important when you have to convince a jury. But still it is definitely important to spend time on the technical preparation, because it can also supports your rhetoric in the way that you use a specific vocabulary to strike that you really know what you are talking about. According to me his answer is also a criticism of what we are taught in schools today. This is basically: we have to find a proper job, to make a good living which means most of the time to earn a lot of money and becoming the best. But it is originally not the idea of a liberal education, it is even more the opposite. For me a liberal education includes a variety of different ways of thinking. Novels, poems and art can help you to open your mind and to get a detailed and wide perspective on a certain subject. It is therefore not only a intellectual effort but also the possibility and the willing to really understand what is happening through literature and philosophy. In the past jurist were not just jurist, but polymaths.
    Imagination deals with creativity. Maybe we should think of this and try to see our work also as a possible field of creativity, of create something sometimes.

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  14. Anina Gröger says:

    I can’t answer from the view of an law student, but the answer of Felix Frankfurter for becoming a lawyer can also be applicated to other careers. Because being cultivated and a well-read person helps you in all different ways. Especially by dealing with people with diffrent backgrounds and diffrent careers (accedemic or not). It helps you to be openminded for all various opinions and ideas and therefor can help you in creative ways to solve your problems, like solving a case in court. To altercate with poems, paintings and music is also a lot of fun!

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  15. martinabernardini says:

    Thanks to our classes, we understood that law and literature are really connected for several reasons. First of all, we may say that law and literature both try to create reality through the language, and even tough they seem to be splitted apart they share a common interest for a good use of language. Moreover, another common point is that both literature and law were “born” in Ancient Greece.

    As we said during our classes, there are numbers of way to analyze the relations between law and literature; for instance: law in literature, law as literature, law about literature.

    Altough the differences between civil and common law, I think that in both cases the most important language expression in the world of law is the judgement. If we think that each law’s document is the expression of feelings and emotions of society and that each words from the judge should be long lasting in the future, we can state that in every judgement there is the high manifestation of law and literature. Thus I agree with Frankfurter: to be a good lawyeer we need to be a well-read person. Law and literature can not leave apart. Moreover, as we learned from prof Skeel, reading improves empathy, so literature can help a lawyer to be a really good lawyer. However I think that is not completely correct that technical preparation is not important for the law. If we acquire a good technical preparation, thanks to reading we improve our ability to analyze the human relationships; anyway we need to study legal technicism.
    This connection between law and literature is very important: good lawyer has to apply the code but also he has to analyze every single case and every case is different frim the others.

    In conclusion, the useful instrument for a lawyer, specially for a judge, is the language and so he lives in two worlds: law and literature.

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  16. Amanda Rossini says:

    I agree with Mr.Frankfurter ‘s opinion that being a cultivated person is the most important thing when it comes to practice the law. On the other hand, I also believe the technical part of the law is necessary in order to do your job as a lawyer, otherwise we would not have the distinction between lawyers and other intellectuals. However, the more cultivated you are, the better is your performance as a lawyer or as whichever professional you may be. There is a massive gain for someone who reads a lot and has knowledge of various matters because this person is probably very interesting, communicative, fast learner and eager to expand her knowledge. I believe that if everyone was more cultivated as a person, we would not have half of the problems in the world because when you feed yourself with knowledge you become more tolerant, reasonable and altruist. Therefore the consequences of stocking your mind with good readings and culture in general as well as experiencing life at most turn out to be very helpful for a lawyering order to be communicative, persuasive, reasonable and smart.

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  17. Maria D'Ercole says:

    One has to be very careful on how to take advice from another individual. Him or her must see his own personal situation first and not consider pretty words as carved on stone from wherever it comes. Felix Frankfurter was a Harvard Graduate and became Judge of the Supreme Court, what can he ask more of his professional career? He arrived at a peak of wisdom where he felt that all that he took deep down into his consciousness and into his soul was the beauty of the world that for a cultivated man comes from poetry, art, literature or music. In this brief passage he more or less states that one should make his own education through the classical teachings. Said however, by a man who followed a well-predetermined path. What he meant by that is that in order to become a successful person, thus lawyer, one has to trust his own guts and forge himself or herself. He talks about the importance to explore the “mysteries of the universe” which I read as a suggestion to keep curiosity flowing and never accommodate. That in my opinion is set in order to differentiate yourself from all the other law students and make him or her who wants to study law exceptional. Exceptional not for the ability to deliver work or fill a lawsuit but for the ability to become interesting to the eyes of others. That is when you really know your life and education had a truthful meaning. The experiences, the people in your life, the books you read, and the development of your own personal reasoning: that is what forges a woman or a man and not the books where you and thousands of people before you have studied. In fact, the classical education teaches exactly that. To become a cultivated man depends only on your ability to wanting to become one. In addition, at the end of the game, you will have developed the proper skills and competencies to tackle problems from different angles. That will allow people to judge you and define you as a man or woman of law and avoid the problem of you wanting to prove yourself by judging others.

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  18. mariabeatrizseica says:

    I agree with the answer Mr. Justice Felix Frankfurter gave, specially taking into account that he is replying to a 12-year-old child. In fact, in that age, there is no more important thing to do for your future than learn as many things you can, and completely soak the learning sponge that all of us possess at that age.

    Besides, the practice of law demands such maturity, that we can only get by expanding our horizons, particularly through culture, which makes us grow to be the person we imagine in the future, allow us to consolidate the values which are structural for a human being as a social person, and, regarding the law fields, the values and open-mind required to know how to deal with a multitude of realities and personalities. So, if that child can achieve that level of growth, the technical preparation that law demands it will be a secondary formation (although crucial). With this I mean that the technicalities in Law are much easier to dominate that the humanity and ethics, principals that the career itself demands.

    Also, considering law as one of the most complex languages in the world, it is necessary to have a sufficient background and knowledge of other languages and on interpretation of texts and narratives to be capable to comprehend with ease each singular case, and to comunicate with every client, witness,…

    In that sense, I totally agree with Mr. Justice’s answer, in describing the fundamental bases that we should have to be a successful jurist, and, more generally, a great human being.

    Maria Beatriz Seiça

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  19. Francesca Ginese says:

    What do you think about that?
    In the opening sentence of the letter “No one can be a truly competent lawyer unless he is a cultivated man” Mr Felix Frankfurter is referring to a person that is already a lawyer, showing to the reader what makes a lawyer “competent” in his opinion, that is to be a well-read person. This is the reason why it seems reductive to me to recommend to a 12-year-old boy to forget about any technical preparation to become a lawyer.
    Obviously, reading a good book or poetry, looking at important paintings, and listening to great music makes life more interesting and engaging. Knowledge (culture), enriches the soul and an educated person is definitely more fascinating. For example, the books we read have the power to reveal elements of who we are and which kind of person we are trying to be. Some of them can even change our points of view or ways of living.
    We should not take for granted that an extremely rich person will be also as much educated, and the lack of a good reading can often become his/her weakness.
    What I think is that to be a “competent lawyer” you need an adequate preparation and, thus, you need to attend an intense course of study, as for example the Italian university system offers.
    The starting point should be a very extensive theoretical preparation, including courses that do not deal with the law itself, in the first place, and, at the end, to conclude, you should also have a more practical preparation. During the whole 19th century, it was completely different. Lawyers could have the chance to choose whether to attend a law school or not, because they had the possibility to become lawyers anyways.

    However, being a well-read person has an added value for a lawyer, to be a more competent one, in my opinion. Books, as I already said, contributes to your knowledge, and knowledge opens up your mind and allows you to have more points of view. In conclusion, reading a book or studying independently, allows you to gain the experience you are not able to gain in your everyday life.
    Lastly, I strongly believe that encouraging​a child to commit and become a well-read person, is the greatest gift you could give him/her!

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