Joseph in Lawyerland

8 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 11 Aug 2011

See all articles by Robin L. West

Robin L. West

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: 2001


As Alice wanders through Wonderland in an unreal space in real time-a dream-learning backward truths from illogical creatures who speak in paradoxes, so Joseph figuratively wanders through lawyerland in an unreal time, but in a very real space-Manhattan-conversing with his thinly fictionalized friends, all of whom happen to be lawyers, about their lives and practices in law. As Joseph's lawyers talk with him about the law they practice, they uncover, through White Rabbit and Cheshire Cat-like illogical precision, a chaotic, unkempt, unconscionably reckless, often cruel, and sometimes pathological legal wilderness. The legal terrain these lawyers occupy is not an inviting one: Lawyerland, according to Joseph and his friends, is an inhumane place. Even more striking, though, than the cruelty of their world, is what Joseph's lawyers in Lawyer-land tell Joseph about the nature of lawyers' knowledge. What lawyers know of law, and of people, Joseph's lawyers tell him, and he tells us, are the limits of our knowledge, both ours and theirs, regarding both law and the human condition. In this regard, Joseph's lawyers are virtually ironic templates (or as one of his conversationalists would put it, ironic "phenotypes"): Like all ironists, what Joseph's lawyers know, they know from and of experience; and what they know, is that lawyers know the boundaries of what we know. They know, for example, that nonlawyers don't know the nature of the legal beast; they know that lawyers keep secrets; they know lawyers "secrete"; and they know that lawyers defraud others. They know that lawyers lie, even if only by necessity and if only by virtue of knowing too much; they know that lawyers "invented spin," and, when they have to, "change the story"; they know that lawyers use knowledge to game the system; and they know that there is much that lawyers don't know precisely because lawyers don't want to know it.

Keywords: Lawrence Joseph, James Baldwin, legal profession, justice and society

JEL Classification: K14, K00

Suggested Citation

West, Robin L., Joseph in Lawyerland (2001). Columbia Law Review, Vol. 101, p. 1775, 2001, Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 11-105, Available at SSRN:

Robin L. West (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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