California Bar Journal
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Barbs for the Bar from the Bard?
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President, State Bar of California
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Andrew J. GuilfordWords are the tools of an attorney’s trade, and the greatest master of words ever was William Shakespeare. In my December president’s column, I ranked him as the fifth greatest person of the millennium, his influence resonating down through the centuries.

There is great truth in the observation that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” words often incorrectly attributed to Shakespeare. Words are indeed mighty, although today computer keyboards have largely replaced pens. The enduring power of words and importance of lawyers as wordsmiths is reflected in the astounding 2,398 Alta Vista “hits” produced for a web search of “pen is mightier than the sword.”

With this in mind, then, it is altogether fitting and proper that a bar president write a midsummer review of Shakespeare, the greatest wordsmith ever. (His timelessness is reflected in the parenthetical references to Alta Vista hits for his italicized words below.)

A lawyerly review of Shakespeare must begin with the phrase often misquoted as a barb that forever entwined Shakespeare with lawyers, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” King Henry VI, Part II, IV, ii (420 Alta Vista hits).

Some have even called this the first lawyer joke. Now I have no problem with lawyer jokes. In fact, lawyers, with all their power and prestige, become far more appealing when displaying the humility of self-deprecation. However, in this so-called barb, Shakespeare put these words in the mouth of a riotous anarchist, seeking to overthrow society.

Thus, Shakespeare is complimenting lawyers as protectors of the rule of law, and attacking lawyers with this phrase is much ado about nothing. As president, I have learned that at times, you can take pride in who considers you to be an enemy. It is good that anarchists consider lawyers to be enemies.

Beyond his comments about killing lawyers, Shakespeare is entwined with lawyers because his truisms so often grace the arguments and briefs of lawyers. Thus, as a labour of love not to be lost, here is the Bard’s quill in your quiver, a brief review of passages from the prose and poetry of Shakespeare that are suitable for briefs and arguments.

“ . . . it is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
- Macbeth, V,v
(1,746 Alta Vista hits).

This is a great one whenever your opposition talks or writes a lot, but communicates little. You know, like many lawyers and politicians. Or maybe this column.

“Neither a borrower, nor a lender be . . . .”
- Hamlet I, iii
(738 Alta Vista hits).

The possibilities are many for this one: debt collection cases and lender liability cases (either side), plagiarism, or bar dues refund requesters.

“That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”
- Sonnet LXXIII
(351 Alta Vista hits).

It might be hard to fit this into our legal work, but it’s my favorite sonnet. And I turn 50 this year.

“What’s in a name?   That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet . . . .”
- Romeo and Juliet, II, ii
(1,552 Alta Vista hits).

Use this for disputes concerning the selection of descriptive words. Or Hall of Fame candidates.

“ . . . it was Greek to me.”
- Julius Caesar, I, ii
(4,051 Alta Vista hits).

Use this for your Greek cases. Or when something is obscure, like this column.

“Beware the Ides of March.”
- Julius Caesar, I, ii
(743 Alta Vista hits).

Use this whenever something bad happens on the 15th of March.

“She speaks, yet she says nothing . . . .”
- Romeo and Juliet, II, ii
(97 Alta Vista hits).

I would not touch this with a 10-foot pen. Is it possible that Shakespeare could be chauvinistic, thinking shrews need taming? Then again, he created a precociously early model of a heroic woman lawyer in Portia, who saves the day in The Merchant of Venice as we would like it.

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven . . . .”
- The Merchant of Venice, IV, i
(235 Alta Vista hits).

Portia’s argument for mercy presents a 400-year-old example of an effective woman litigator and can be used whenever justice must be tempered by mercy.

“The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.”
- The Merchant of Venice, I, IV, i
(24 Alta Vista hits).

And Shakespeare too!

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
- Hamlet, III, ii
(1,977 Alta Vista hits).

If the opposition protests your unfairness more than twice, you can bet you’re being fair and the opposition isn’t. This will give it back to them, measure for measure.

“ . . . brevity is the soul of wit . . . .”
- Hamlet, II, ii
(701 Alta Vista hits).

Methinks I found this one too late. All’s well that ends well, so I’ll end this comedy of errors.

Mr. Guilford’s e-mail address is