Holmes on Legal Practice and “Academic Life”

October 21st, 2013

I recently started reading “The Great Dissent” by Thomas Healy, which discusses Oliver Wendell Holmes’s turn towards being a champion of the First Amendment. At the beginning of the book, there is a discussion of Holmes before he became a Judge. The book notes that he liked being a lawyer, but didn’t much care for the business of the law. Healy described his legal practice as “mostly a disappointment.”

Though he was sharp on his feet and won his share of cases (fourteen of thirty-two in the state’s highest court), he disliked the business side of legal practice and relied on his partners to bring in his clients.

But much more than being a lawyer, he enjoyed being a scholar.

He found greater satisfaction in the scholarly work he did on the side, writing articles for the American Law Review on arcane topics such as privity and common carriers and producing dense masterpiece The Common Law.

This line about the “academic life” is perfect.

But whereas the practice of law was too close to the sordid and petty affairs of the world, scholarship was too far removed. In the one year he spent as a professor at Harvard, he “began to grow sober with an inarticulate sense of limitation.” Ultimately, he concluded that “academic life is but half life–it is a withdrawal from the fight in order to utter smart things that cost you nothing except the thinking them from a cloister.”

Yep, that’s about right.