Who said “it is better to suffer a great wrong than to have recourse to the much greater wrong of the law.”

February 6th, 2012

Charles Dickens, who apparently was was no fan of attorneys.

TUESDAY is the bicentenary of the birth, in Portsmouth, England, of Charles Dickens, literature’s greatest humanist. We can rejoice that so many of the evils he assailed with his beautiful, ferocious quill — dismal debtors’ prisons, barefoot urchin labor, an indifferent nobility — have happily been reformed into oblivion. But one form of wickedness he decried haunts us still, proud and unrepentant: the lawyer.

Lawyers appear in 11 of his 15 novels. Some of them even resemble humans. Uriah Heep (“David Copperfield”) is a red-eyed cadaver whose “lank forefinger,” while he reads, makes “clammy tracks along the page … like a snail.” Mr. Vholes (“Bleak House”), “so eager, so bloodless and gaunt,” is “always looking at the client, as if he were making a lingering meal of him with his eyes.” Most lawyers infest dimly lighted, moldy offices “like maggots in nuts.” (No, counselor, writers dead since 1870 cannot be sued for libel.)

Dickens knew whereof he spoke. At 15, he was hired as an “attorney’s clerk,” serving subpoenas, registering wills, copying transcripts; later he became a court reporter. For three formative years he was surrounded by law students, law clerks, copying clerks, court clerks, magistrates, barristers and solicitors who (reborn in his fiction) uttered cheerful sentiments like “I hate my profession.” His portraits of nearly every London court — Chancery, Divorce, Probate, Admiralty, etc. — are so accurate that one scholar wrote a lively book called “Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian.” At 32 he filed his first suit against a pirate publisher