Clinical Law Prof Blog

Editor: Jeffrey R. Baker
Pepperdine University
School of Law

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

In honor of William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday today, let us reflect on this line from 2 Henry VI:


“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” 


Dick the Butcher speaks the line at Part II, Act IV, Scene II, Line 73.   He was part of a plot to disturb law and order, to sow discord and chaos, to unseat the king and install his ill-fated rebel leader (and tool of rival politicians), Jack Cade, as a new ruler. 

For those who would work violence and disruption, to grab power, to impose their will on society, the first opponents were the lawyers.  They raped while they pillaged, and they raged against literacy. (Just after this line, the rebels captured and condemned the Clerk of Chatham because he could read and write, because he had a book in his pocket and was teaching boys to read. "Here's a villain!")  The rebels turned to looting and violence as soon as they entered the city, and they ultimately abandoned Cade while he fled.  The lawyers were the bulwark for stability and order. 

On the other hand, Cade convinced the rebels that they had intense grievance against the weakened king and should seek to level the hierarchy, to root out corruption, to protest debt and abuse of process, to rise against the misrule that subjugated the working classes, but also to put an end to reading and writing.   The lawyers, then, were a target for their complicity to prop up privilege and tyranny (and grammar), to hold down the workers by parchment and wax.

What would we be?   How do we teach our students?  

We should be lawyers who would oppose disorder, violence and assaults on the Rule of Law and fair process.   We should also be lawyers who would oppose the abuse of power and privilege to the oppression of the people governed by the law.   (We should also favor education for the people.)

We should take some solace that we have been the object of scorn for at least 500 years, either for opposing injustice or for promoting it.   Too bad there aren’t more client jokes.

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