Bards of the Bar

For many career lawyers, poetry isn't simply a weekend hobby; it's a second calling.

For many poets of the past, playing the bard has often been something of a sideline.

Fourteenth-century griots of the Mali Empire were not just poets but also musicians, as well as counselors of warrior kings. Celtic poets were also image consultants hired by tribal chiefs to sing their praises and ridicule their foes. And they studied law.

In the 19th Century, President and lawyer John Quincy Adams was also a published poet. “Could I have chosen my own genius and condition," he mused "I would have made myself a great poet.”

And in modern times the poet Wallace Stevens had a law degree, as had James Weldon Johnson.

Yet the suggestion of law having any connection to poetry, or the idea that the lawyers are poets as well, still astonishes people, say those who do in fact work as both. “People have a stereotype of lawyers as being cold and so the idea of one being a poet, someone who wears their heart on their sleeves, that seems like a contradiction,” says Carl Reisman a worker’s compensation and personal injury lawyer with a practice in Urbana, Ill.

However, law professionals with poetic sensibilities - or lawyerates, as they have been called - sometimes see a natural connection between the two disciplines: language. Just as a precision of words and concepts is essential to lawyers’ briefs and arguments, a precision of language is essential to poets. The two disciplines rely on the same tool.

Reisman, 45, has been a lawyer for 10 years and a poet since elementary school. In 2005 he published Kettle, his first collection of poems. That summer, while vacationing in Ireland, Reisman visited the ruins of a Bardic school, where students had learned history, law and poetry. Inspired, Reisman returned home and put together a conference that he called “Opening Arguments: Poetry and Law.” It took place last February at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and featured a panel of legal professionals and poets from across the U.S.

Through workshops and discussions that examined how the practice of law and poetry influence on another, Reisman hoped to show the law students and fine arts students who attended that “they can pursue their passion for writing and still be lawyers.” Reisman added that he has remained passionate about the law even as his involvement in poetry has deepened.

“While there may be no great rush to embrace our lawyer poet, they are beginning to receive some recognition,” said James Elkins, a law professor at West Virginia University. An adviser to Reisman in the conference planning, Elkins said Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., is planning a similar event in the near future.

Several state bar association magazines, including Oregon’s, have been spotlighting lawyer poets in feature articles, said Elkins. Some state bar journals have even started publishing poetry, a trend he finds indicative of greater interest in poets with legal professions. Elkins is the editor of the Legal Studies Forum, a collection of poetry from contemporary lawyers. He said he has published the works of 170 lawyer poets over the past five years.

“Having a good many lawyer poets, in any age, is one thing,” Elkins said, “But the real question is: Are they any good? What I’ve found is that lawyers - poet for poet - are some of the best poets in America.”

Acclaimed in Legal Affairs magazine as “the most important lawyer-poet of our era,” Lawrence Joseph has taught law at St. John’s school of law since 1987.

“I wrote my first poem when I was 19,” said Joseph, whose fourth book of poems, “Into It,” was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in Fall 2005. That same year, the publishers released “Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993,” which collects Joseph’s first three books of poetry.

“It’s a matter of temperament. I have a need because of who I am to write poetry, I’ve always felt that,” said Joseph. Born in Detroit in 1948, Joseph is the grandson of Lebanese and Syrian Catholics, among the first Arab emigrants to Detroit. His poetry often revisits his native city, as a symbol of labor and capital, race and violence. “I don’t write poems and have a day job I don’t care about,” he said. “I’ve worked 35 years as a lawyer. The domains of law and poetry may be separate, but they are also interrelated. Both worlds deal with language.” Added Joseph: “Law is a practical discipline that penetrates race, politics, socioeconomics - virtually all dimensions of our exterior world. That type of sensibility is in poetry too.”

Lois Moses of Philadelphia is a poet and a law professional who does fiduciary work. “I’ll call myself a poet before I call myself anything,” she said, adding that her friends call her “A recovering lawyer.”

A 1997 graduate from Temple University School of Law, Moses has published three collections of poetry including “Missing Pages ... (Women Behind the Glass Door),” which contains poems about her experiences in law school. Moses’s goal is to use her knowledge of the legal system, as well as her written and spoken word poetry “to empower people towards transformation.”

“I’m talking about law in the altruistic sense - truth, not the construct of law as it exists in our society,” Moses said. She believes that law and poetry both speak for the collective. “The poet says the things that the community won’t say and the lawyer says what most people can’t, but both speak for the people.”