THE STORY OF MY LIFE (1932)
I began the study of law. ...[in] Ann Arbor in the law department [at the University of Michigan], which I did for one year. At that time the full course was two years. At the end of one year I was positive that I could make my preparation in another year in an office, which would cost much less money and give a chance to be admitted to the bar at twenty-one. So I went to work in a law office in Youngstown, Ohio, until I was ready for examination for admission to the bar. In those days a committee of lawyers were chose to examine applicants. They were all good fellows and wanted to help us through. The bar association of today lay down every conceivable condition; they require a longer preliminary study, and exact a college education and long courses in law schools, to keep new members out of the closed circle. The Lawyers' Union is about as anxious to encourage competition as the Plumbers' Union is, or the United States Steel Co., or the American Medical Association.
When I considered that I was ready for the test I presented myself, with some dozen other ambitious young men, for the examination. A committee of lawyers was appointed to try us out. That committee did not seem to take it as seriously as examiners do to-day. I was not made to feel that the safety of the government or the destiny of the universe was hanging on their verdict. As I remember it now, the whole class was passed, and I became a member of the Ohio Bar.
In the English expression, I had now been "called" to the bar. Lawyers are very fond of fiction; especially the English lawyers. Working a long time on obscure subjects, spending all your money, and as much of your family's as you can get, and finally passing examinations against the will and best efforts of the inquisitors, means getting "called to the bar." I now had a license to practice law, but no one had called me to practice on him. ... I had no money and no influential friends. I had a rather meager education. I had never been carefully and methodically trained, and I have felt the lack of it all my life. My law education came from a year's study at a good law school and from a year's reading under a lawyer's direction. I had never had any experience in court work or in the preparation of cases. I then knew, and have ever since been aware, that I needed specific training which I could not get.
I took a little office in the village of Andover, ten miles from Kinsman [Ohio], borrowed some money to buy some books, and flung my shingle to the breeze. I did not succeed at first. I am not certain that I ever did. In fact, I don't know the meaning of the word "success." To some - perhaps to most - it means "money." I never cared for it nor tried to get much of it or ever had a great deal, but still most of my life I have had what I needed. To some, success means political preferment; this I never wanted. It is hard enough to maintain an independent stand and freely express one's self without being handicapped by the desire for office or money.
Much of the business of the country lawyer in my day was the trial of cases before justices of the peace. These often seemed to be exciting events. And right now I am not so sure but that the old-time country lawyers fighting over the title to a cow were as clever, and sometimes as learned, as lawyers now whose cases involve millions of dollars, or human lives. The trials then were not so much a matter of rote. A lawsuit, then, before a justice of the peace, was filled with color and life and wits. Nor was the country lawsuit a dry and formal affair. Every one, for miles around, had heard of the case and taken sides between the contending parties or their lawyers. Neighborhoods, churches, lodges, and entire communities were divided as if in war. Often the cases were tried in the town halls, and audiences assembled from far and near. An old-time lawsuit was like a great tournament, as described by Walter Scott.
I entered my first criminal case in the attitude of "good" lawyer - the lawyer who attends all the Bar Association meetings and so gravitates as rapidly as he can to the defense of Big Business. The tragedies, the sorrow and despair that were present in the criminal court I knew nothing of, and did not want to know.
Strange as it may seem, I grew to like to defend men and women charged with crime. It soon came to be something more than winning or losing a case. I sought to learn why one man goes one way and another takes an entirely different road. I became vitally interested in the causes of human conduct. This meant more than the quibbling with lawyers and juries, to get or keep money for a client so that I could take part of what I won or saved for him: I was dealing with life, with its hopes and fears, its aspirations and despairs. With me it was going to the foundation of motive and conduct and adjustments for human beings, instead of blindly talking of hatred and vengeance, and that subtle, indefinable quality that men call "justice" and of which nothing really is known.