Saturday, September 29, 2012

What a Piece of Work

What a piece of work is a man, . . . .
Man delights me not—nor women neither, though by
your smiling you seem to say so.

Hamlet, II.2.303+

Of all of his creations, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most likely poster child for SNOOTiness. See previous post: “Of Solecisims and SNOOTs.” For one thing, Hamlet is decidedly attuned to language and its nuances. And putting aside that his circumstances suggest ample grounds for legitimate rage, the guy is rather persnickety about messes. (“O, that this too too sullied[1] flesh would melt,/ Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!”). In particular, his mother’s messy sexuality really seems to unhinge him. He chides her, for example, in rather graphic terms for her decision: “to live/ In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,/ Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love/ Over the nasty sty,--” Indeed, he has such a hard time controlling the urge to correct and control that he even feels compelled to give snide advice to a band of traveling players about what he claims “offends [him] to [his] very soul;” and he gives this advice before he has even seen them rehearse:
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness.

You could argue that Hamlet’s SNOOTiness eventually costs him his life; he cannot stand it that the world—and particularly human beings—are profoundly flawed. And the way he commits to “fix” everything guarantees his own destruction.
Most lawyers cannot afford to be unmitigated SNOOTs—even though I suspect that many SNOOTs go to law school. I’ll pursue these two propositions independently.
First, most lawyers are not SNOOTs because (a) not all people who become lawyers are hardwired to be SNOOTs; and (b) most lawyers cannot afford to be SNOOTs, even if nature inclines them to be so.
As David Foster Wallace and Bryan Garner suggest, SNOOTiness seems to have a genetic component. You have to have an overactive left hemisphere. Then, that genetic proclivity has to be nurtured through a disciplined, yet obsessive, commitment to both language and rules. Most people expect lawyers to be sticklers about both language and rules; at the same time, most people (including the kind known as “corporations”) generally do not want to pay for the time it takes to generate work product that will be entirely satisfactory to a true SNOOT. Likewise, most clients, not being SNOOTS themselves, do not feel comfortable sharing important confidences with true SNOOTs. These clients might express exasperation about typos in deal documents or briefs for which they have paid good money; and such exasperation is warranted. But being perfectly SNOOTy is not exactly the trait associated with most first-rate rainmakers. Rainmakers usually have other important assets—including charisma, empathy, the judgment to know when to withhold judgment.
Bryan Garner, as Wallace notes, is a lawyer. He went to law school and did exceedingly well. He got a law job upon graduation. But perhaps he only practiced law for about five minutes because he was not inclined to curb his SNOOTiness. And perhaps his firm did not fully appreciate the hours he devoted to drafting a fantastic modern usage manual instead of pursuing billable work. In any event, he would not likely argue with the suggestion that he was, by temperament, better suited for academia than for the private sector.
Of course Garner got the last laugh in that he has been able to parlay his academic propensities and pronounced SNOOTiness into a lucrative consulting practice on top of producing stunningly successful books about usage and writing. My point is, though, that actual law practice does not privilege the true SNOOT—Garner’s sui generis career notwithstanding.
The second proposition is that, although most practicing lawyers cannot be pure SNOOTs, many SNOOTS go to law school and thrive there. Why? Because law school is a really good fit for people who care about or are terribly insecure about words, rules, power, and propriety. Most law schools reward these values. Students who possess some compendium of these values are the ones who get on law review. They are the ones who become intimately acquainted with The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation. They are the ones willing to clock untold hours checking and correcting their own and others’ factual and grammatical messes.
Of course, not every law student who serves on law review or other academic law journals loves that kind of work. I actually suspect that most do not. Yet these folks commit to this work because they recognize that this display of masochism makes them more attractive to private employers who pay really well. And for most, the hope of gainful employment was the main impetus for going to law school in the first place.
The fact that so many non-SNOOTs in law school are willing to devote untold hours to pure SNOOT labor proves that SNOOTs are the ones who call the shots. Law-school culture privileges SNOOTiness even though SNOOTiness is, to some extent, incompatible with actual law practice because law school is populated by law professors, most of whom, like Garner, only practiced law for about five minutes.
Is that a bad thing—that elite law schools and law practice privilege different, even occasionally incompatible values?
Not necessarily. Although a debate on that subject is currently being waged. See, e.g., Brian Tamanaha’s Failing Law Schools.
I merely suggest here that, while lawyers can learn a great deal from SNOOTs, the realities of law practice are not conducive to pure SNOOTiness. SNOOTs who train their eye on lawyers’ use of language will, of course, find many “[e]xamples gross as earth [to] exhort.” But being a true SNOOT while practicing lawyer is a formula “[w]hich might deprive your sovereignty of reason/And draw you into madness[.]” (I.4.73-74).

[1] In some versions, editors chose “solid” instead of “sullied.” But because the latter fits better with Hamlet’s larger obsession with all things flawed, I prefer “sullied,” as do the editors of The Riverside Shakespeare.

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