Law in Contemporary Society

Lawyers’ Metamorphosis: A Tragedy?

-- By JiMinShin - 19 Feb 2016

In Metamorphosis by Kafka, the main character changes into a vermin, something like a cockroach. In Robinson’s Metamorphosis, the main character Robinson offers somewhat different picture, a collective metamorphosis: lawyers turning into prisoners, and prisoners turning into lawyers. Robinson clearly depicts through his own idea of metamorphosis the degradation of the profession, the degradation of lawyering, but by mentioning “exacting justice” of metamorphosing them back at the end, he yet suggests that there remains a possibility for lawyers to come back, as lawyers, not as prisoners. This leaves lawyers, including practicing lawyers and would-be lawyers, with a question: what could we do to acquire exacting justice?


Robinson makes an analogy between lawyers and prisoners, as if they are interchangeable. The clear implication is that the nature of lawyer includes a criminal aspect. In fact, he seems to think that it has become a dominant characteristic of the profession. Robinson is conscious of it throughout the poem and does not bother to hide his thinking. His speech begins with a tale of a rich lawyer and his lament, the demise of the profession due to greed; then a Defense Attorney who wanted his “dumb” client dead and a “sexy” prosecutor who showered upon the client numerous exaggerated criminal charges. Robinson himself is not the exception. Robinson points out that lawyers, including himself, do wrongs or defend people who have done wrongs, and make a lucrative “business” out of it. He describes it as a major growing industry. There is a sense of immorality, injustice in lawyering, as prisoners are morally blameworthy, and the parallel Robinson draws between lawyers and prisoners is explicit.

The fact that lawyers mostly do not commit overt, violent crimes as prisoners have done, or they simply have not been arrested and prosecuted yet, is not a comforting factor considering the proximity of lawyering to evil. As Robinson quotes Kafka, lawyers are “never far from evil.” Lawyers are always around the police, as criminals are. They may fall anytime without even realizing. They have power; they have money. If they do not have either, most would willingly and zealously follow after them. They want privilege. Their career is the most important interest. They are modern aristocrats with “two wives, four cars, three houses, two precociously gifted Ivy League children.” And they are so self-consciously aware of the fact that they earing all these through their faults, their wrongs, their willful disregard. The degradation of the profession is indubitable.

Lawyers are successful people, but they are deprived of their essence. The degradation has become almost intrinsic now. It should have been, and should be “lawyers and justice,” but “lawyers and greed” instead. In that aspect, they are like prisoners. They are physically free, but morally suppressed, spiritually confined, chained; chained to what they have achieved; money, power, and privilege; too hard to let go of now. Lawyers have metamorphosed into prisoners. They are prisoners to everything they have so eagerly fought for.

Exacting Justice

Nevertheless, at the very end of the poem, Robinson implies that lawyers are not completely without hope. Lawyers who have become prisoners, can metamorphose back into lawyers. In Metamorphosis by Kafka, the vermin never regained its original human form. It died as a vermin. Lawyers may not. They may once again return from prisoners to lawyers. Robinson calls it a “form of exacting justice.” It is exacting justice because it is straightening what has gone astray. Restoring lawyers who have become prisoners back to real lawyers. So there is a possibility of redemption. Robinson’s metamorphosis is a tragedy in a sense that lawyers have become what they were not supposed to be, but not the end of the story.

Challenges for Lawyers

What could lawyers do to achieve this exacting justice correcting the degradation? Robinson does not clearly give an answer to this question. He claims that there is nothing wrong with prisoners metamorphosing back to lawyers, but does not teach us how. His poem simply ends with a hint of redemption. Then what could be the right answer to the question? What could replace success and affluence, and fill the insufficiency created by both? The truth is, nobody seems to know the definite answer. Should lawyers only work for public interest and strive for good? Should lawyers protect only the weak and poor? It is certainly an option, as making living out of the tears of widow and orphan is, but not the fundamental of lawyering, a real lawyer.

Robinson may suggest another hint. He defines a real lawyer as a person who “knows how to take care of a legal problem.” This ability to face and solve legal problems is what essentially makes a lawyer a lawyer. It is true that lawyers are never far from evil. They have chance to do some good, but inevitably will have to put up with standing up for some wrongs. Material success, Mammon, will always be there for temptation. Fame may inspire arrogance and overconfidence. They are prone to fall. But that is not the point. All glories and corruptions following after lawyering are extra choices. What real lawyers should strive for is confronting and solving legal problems, the very practice of lawyering, not byproducts which are outside the scope. They will be required to make choices after achieving the requisite competence. Those choices could be good and just, and possibly bad and unjust. After all, lawyers are not far from evil. But as long as they are lawyering, not aiming at things extra to legal matters, they will not be evil themselves.

I suggested last time that the greatest difficulty of this form of explication du texte is its literalism. I still think that's true here. Are you sure that either Kafka or Joseph is wedded to a simple dualism? That there's just a little cockroach in everyone, as there's a little prisoner in every lawyer? I wonder if we should ask what it is about prisoners that makes them like lawyers, as much as we wonder why lawyers might be prisoners. I wonder, as I said before, if Ovid and Marlow and Goethe as well as Kafka and Joseph really consider metamorphosis simply the enactment of a correspondence.

The stakes here seem to be that this art is also normative: what lawyers are in Robinson's dissection of what they are is what they either should or shouldn't be. But this isn't just a text whose explication exists, as the work itself therefore also does, in an abstract world. It's a thing we are reading in this class, without our own context and our own purposes, and when we explain it we are explaining it to ourselves. So the route to improvement in my view is to use the poem to increase our understanding of what we are trying to learn about being lawyers ourselves.


Webs Webs

r4 - 09 Jun 2016 - 13:37:55 - EbenMoglen
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