Harry Potter, law school, and the power of language

Posted by John

Question: which famous academic is known by his students for having said, “Never let your skill exceed your virtue?”

Was it (A) Albus Dumbledore or (B) Yale Law School’s former Dean Harold Koh?

If you guessed B, you were right. Sitting at the tail end of my law school orientation, I find it amusing that about half of what we were told in our first days of law school was about how not to become a terrible person. We’ve been given lectures ranging from “How not to become a lawyer joke” to “What are the professional rules of conduct for lawyers?” If you were wondering, by the way, why lawyer jokes are not good ones to tell, it’s because lawyers don’t think they’re funny, and nobody else thinks they’re jokes.

I don’t think this sort of training, jokes aside, is unique to Yale’s orientation program. And I by no means wish to say that Yale thinks most law students are or will become terrible people. Nor do I believe that’s true—both my parents are lawyers, and I think they’re swell.

But I do think it is interesting that Dean Robert Post, quoting Koh, would feel the need to warn us about the dangers of using law for less-than-noble purposes. It indeed sounds like something out of Harry Potter. So what did he mean? And is this comparison to Harry Potter apt?

If there’s one thing all of this talk has taught me thus far, it’s that the power of law is at its core the power of language. Learning law, as Professor Heather Gerken told us, is itself learning a new language. To master the law’s deep power, then, is the same task as mastering the language of law. Once we immerse ourselves in and develop control over this new language, the hope is that we can shape it, direct it, and, indeed, wield it like a tangible instrument. Dean Post and others spoke as if we could ply the law as a weapon precisely because that’s what we are trying to learn how to do.

In a lot of ways, it’s exactly what Harry and company were doing at Hogwarts. They were, themselves, learning a language of great and fundamental power—magic! The point of their education was to learn how responsibly to craft it, wrangle it, and direct it to some end. That idea of learning to wield the power of their language responsibly is the one Dean Post was trying to convey to us. While we might never be able to drop someone dead with two little words, the power of law’s language is real, and thus is real the weight of responsibility in utilizing it.

Clearly, this is one of the more romantic ways we’ve yet been taught to think about law. That’s probably because it’s more exciting to not-quite-1Ls than telling us about the thousands of pages of case law we’ll soon be reading. But it seems to me that there’s at least some truth behind it. We all know the great power behind arguments made using the language of law (think, say, Brown v. Board of Education), even if we also recognize the profession’s shortcomings (e.g., the potential monotony of law school).

Back to the Harry Potter analogy, though, there are other ways in which it can be extended. The concept of adversaries in the courtroom is the lawyer’s version of a wizarding duel: Each opponent is attempting to craft arguments—spells—that will outflank the other’s defenses. The really good wizards, like the really good lawyers, will not just look at the rules as they have been understood and applied before. They will use their mastery of the language to come up with creative new ways to accomplish their goals.

As both a former linguist(-in-training) and a Harry Potter lover, I like this way of thinking about law as a sort of language, comparable in some ways to languages like HP’s magic. Maybe someday, if I can figure it out, I’ll write a post on which subjects would count as, say, the language’s origin (Constitutional Law?), syntax (maybe Procedure?), semantics, and everything else. But until then, does anyone know of a spell that will help me get my torts reading done?