Mormon Lawyers

Despite Brigham’s frequent attacks on the profession, there are a lot of Mormon lawyers. Some LDS thinkers have posited all sorts of troubling reasons why this is so. Nibley sees it as a symptom of moral decline, and I have repeatedly seen it used as evidence of excessive Mormon materialism or anti-intellectualism. However, today I realized that it might be about something else entirely: book binding.

One of the main reasons that I went to law school is that I really like the way that law books look. They are heavy, hard-bound, musty, dusty, and the paper is frequently yellowed and brittle. There is this wonderful feeling in a law library that you are surrounded by more than the blue prints for bureaucratic procedures or the tools of a lucrative profession. You are surrounded by LORE. My corporations professor was an ancient old lawyer who insisted on shouting intellectual abuse at students in class and was frequently incoherent. On the other hand, he always insisted on using the quaintly antiquated phrase “learning,” as in “lets look at the agency learning on this point” or “Mr. Hudson how would you apply the contract learning to this problem.” It was possibly the only thing I enjoyed about professor Brudney’s class.

Thus, I have to confess that at work, I get a little thrill of excitement when I come across a problem that requires that I consult old Supreme Court cases. It gives me an excuse to pull down the old leather bound reporters, pour over the agate type, and lose myself in Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. or Stephen Field. “Pathetic!” you say? Perhaps, but today as I pulled down volume 226 of the U.S. Reports – musty, dusty, leather, and crumbling – I was hit by a flash of insight. One of the reasons that I like law books is because they have a certain scriptural aura to them. Holmes once described the common law as “chaos with an index.” It seems like a some what apt description of the Standard Works as well. On the other hand, both summon up visions of ancient, vaguely esoteric wisdom delivered by oracular sages.

No wonder there are so many Mormon lawyers. They have been seduced by lure of the books!

38 comments for “Mormon Lawyers

  1. January 7, 2004 at 7:44 pm

    Hmm. You went into law because you liked matching hardbound books. I went into physics because I liked big lab equipment that blows things up. (I worked at LANL for a while) Strange how these things proceed, eh?

  2. Adam Greenwood
    January 7, 2004 at 8:24 pm

    I am ashamed to admit that you’ve nailed it, Nate. I now know that I’m an antiquarian on the cheap.

  3. Jeremiah John
    January 7, 2004 at 11:35 pm

    I’ve always thought that those law books looked like the Encyclopedia Brittanica editions of the “Great Books”, with Moby Dick, the Divine Comedy, and Lord Jim all hardbound in a 20 volume set. Of course, the difference is that you all actually READ the law books…

    My dissertation is very much concerned with the social purpose and justification for the discipline of law. I suppose I came to this subject because I admire many aspects of it: the prospect of a profession, trained in a system of normative reasoning, with some sense of responsibility for and occupational connection to the common good, with no little room for intellectual achievement and public service. What makes it all the more interesting is that law, as it appears in all its glamour and riches in America, often seems to embody the exact opposite of all these things.

  4. January 8, 2004 at 12:57 am

    It is fascinating how we are drawn to professions by their ephemera: books of certain kinds, lab equipment, paper and fresh notebooks, fountain pens. I’ve always wanted to be an artist so that I could justify buying one of those great-looking boxes of art pencils. I work in Heidegger but could do so by owning four or five works that are central to my interests and going to the library for the rest. In spite of that I’m buying the whole Gesamtausgabe. Though I do, in fact, use it, I suspect I’m buying it because I like the books so much. With their gray dust jackets they say “philosophy.”

    That interest in the ephemera of my profession is part of why I like the beginning of any semester so much. (See New Semester: Every new semester gives me an excuse to buy a new pencil or folder or notebook, to crack a new book, . . . .

  5. Jeremiah John
    January 8, 2004 at 1:12 am

    The collected works of Hegel in German which was published 30 or so years ago (Werke in zwanzig Banden) is so beautiful. The elegant type, the lay-open paperback binding, the small size of the volumes. Someone keeps recalling my library copies, so I have the perfect excuse (in addition to my advisor’s orders) to shell out for this wonderful little collection.

  6. Nate Oman
    January 8, 2004 at 10:02 am

    My current boss was a medievalist in his former life, concentrating on the development of property and tort law in the 12th and 13th centuries. However he is also a bibliophile of the first order. He has some of the earliest printed editions of the Yearbooks (mysterious collections of what seem to be law student notes from the Middle Ages), Bracton, Coke’s Reports, and the like. He even has a complete first edition of Blackstone in fabulous condition. I’ve been to a couple of cocktail parties at his house, and I always make him show me some of his ancient books. Law geeks in book heaven. It is fun.

  7. Nate Oman
    January 8, 2004 at 10:02 am

    My current boss was a medievalist in his former life, concentrating on the development of property and tort law in the 12th and 13th centuries. However he is also a bibliophile of the first order. He has some of the earliest printed editions of the Yearbooks (mysterious collections of what seem to be law student notes from the Middle Ages), Bracton, Coke’s Reports, and the like. He even has a complete first edition of Blackstone in fabulous condition. I’ve been to a couple of cocktail parties at his house, and I always make him show me some of his ancient books. Law geeks in book heaven. It is fun.

  8. Nate Oman
    January 8, 2004 at 10:05 am

    Jeremiah, you will need to talk with me some time about your dissertation, which sounds very interesting to me. I am curious as to which thinkers about law are your starting point? Toqueville? Weber? Hayek? (Do they allow people to study Hayek at Notre Dame?)


  9. Kristine
    January 8, 2004 at 11:10 am

    The Hegel Baende are just gorgeous–I covet them (despite hoping not to have to actually read them much ever again)! I don’t have anything really fancy, but I do have a cheap old East German edition of Goethe’s Werke that is one of my favorite treasures. My little brother was in Leipzig on his mission right after the wall fell and libraries were throwing out thousands and thousands of volumes. I’ve wished so many times that I had been there to go through the trash bins with my brother!! Even if the bindings aren’t lovely, there’s something so appealing about a matched set representing someone’s complete thought; like having a wise old friend on your library shelf.

  10. January 8, 2004 at 11:41 am

    I think anyone who goes into academia has at least a little bit of bibliophilia in them. I’d love to someday own the new, beautiful set of Herder’s writings (Werke in Zehn Baenden) published by Deutscher Klassiker Verlag. I studied out of them in Frankfurt, and again when I spent a summer at Nortre Dame. I don’t imagine I’ll have $1000 to blow on books anytime before Alison graduates from high school, but I can always hope.

    Actually, talking about ephemera, my greatest book vanity is to have an office–at home or work, it doesn’t matter–with floor to ceiling books, and one of those sliding ladders which run along the shelves. I’ve coveted such a set-up for as long as I can remember. To have so many books that you actually have to climb up a ladder to reach one, and then have to push the ladder and slide over to the end of the shelf to reach its companion volume…ah, that would be the professorial, intellectual ideal. David Bohn (a BYU political science professor) had one of those installed in his study at his Orem home, damn him. I’d hang out at his house just to slide back and forth.

  11. Adam Greenwood
    January 8, 2004 at 12:12 pm

    Yes, wall to wall bookshelves, sliding ladder, and a fireplace. There I could moulder away.

  12. Kristine
    January 8, 2004 at 12:13 pm

    Russell: “What, you too? I thought that only I…” dreamed of sliding book ladders :) And hey, look at all these closet Germanists!

  13. January 8, 2004 at 12:19 pm

    I didn’t know so many people owned or wanted to own the Hegel volumes. I got mine as a gift from a colleague who decided not to do Hegel anymore and, so, to give his collection to me. I was in heaven. The Colli-Montinari Studienausgabe of Nietzsche’s works is also very nice–comes in its own box and very sturdy even though it is paperback.

    Russell, I’m doing some remodeling that includes converting a former family room into a library/office. Janice and I spent several days trying to figure out how to get bookshelves with a ladder into the configuration. But since our ceilings aren’t quite 8 feet high, it really didn’t make any sense and I finally had to give it up. It was painful to do so.

  14. Nate Oman
    January 8, 2004 at 12:27 pm

    There are also some wonderful editions of Mormon books. I love my set of the Journal of Discourses, which I inherited from my grandfather. The hard bound editions of the DHC and B.H. Roberts’s Comprehensive History of the Church are nice. One of the great things Signature has done is bring out very nicely bound anthologies of particular writers: The Essential Orson Pratt, etc. In addition, there are Dean Jesse’s _Papers of Joseph Smith_, although the new edition of the _Personal Writings of Joseph Smith_ is just ugly.

    Also, I can’t stand the faux-fine leather editions of church books that Deseret Book brings out. Ich!

    BTW, Russell, Kristine, and Jim, in my current office I do have one entire wall given over to floor to ceiling book cases. Mostly it is filled with old editions of the Federal Reporter, but I have one shelf that houses my books on law, political philosophy, and jurisprudence. I am happy to report that I can feel at least one shelf from floor to ceiling. No ladder though.

  15. January 8, 2004 at 12:42 pm


    You should raise the ceiling. These are your dreams you’re talking about man; don’t allow wimpy concerns like paying for your daughter’s wedding to get in the way.

  16. Adam Greenwood
    January 8, 2004 at 12:59 pm

    How unfortunate for you, Nate, that you are tall.

  17. Mardell
    January 9, 2004 at 12:29 am

    I am glad that everyone is dreaming of a library like the one in Beauty and the Beast. I thought my husband was the only one.

    My dad has a workshop about the same square footage as his house and I have often teased Kaimi that that is the size of library he needs.

    And thanks to you guys now he wants a ladder too.

    My question to all of you is who is cataloging all of these books?

  18. Jeremiah John
    January 12, 2004 at 1:40 am

    Nate, Hegel, of course. I’ll send you something this semester. JWJ

  19. Jeremiah John
    January 12, 2004 at 1:42 am

    Nate: And yes, Hayek is read at ND. Sadly, the Hayekians are taking over economics…

  20. Nate
    January 12, 2004 at 10:01 am

    Is that really true about the Hayekian’s in economics? By Hayekians do you simply mean “libertarians,” or do you really mean folks who take Hayek and Austrian economics seriously?

  21. Nate Oman
    January 12, 2004 at 10:02 am

    BTW, I think that Hayek on law is really facinating. Both THE CONSTITUTION OF LIBERTY and LAW, LIBERTY, AND LEGISLATION seem sadly neglected in legal theory.

  22. Liz O.
    August 5, 2005 at 10:20 am

    And here I thought I was going to Law School this fall because it was the ‘right path’ for me… no! I see now it is the basement walls that are already covered with books that fortold my fate.

  23. Jonathan Green
    August 5, 2005 at 11:37 am

    Nate, I realize I’m a little late to this conversation, but there is no need for “however” between “medievalist” and “bibliophile.” In my case, I was converted from my prior allegiance to historical linguistics by one field trip to the rare book room. (Ironically, the professor who led the outing had once studied law.) There are few museums where you can wander in, pick a century-old artifact off the shelves, and look it over to your heart’s content, but you can do that in just about any library. At the moment, I have a fancy to go look at some fifteenth-century books today. Here’s hoping for contemporary bindings, preferably blind-stamped pigskin over wooden boards. My heart flutters at the sight of pastedowns.

  24. lyle stamps
    August 5, 2005 at 12:41 pm


    Is this retread? I seem to recall almost the exact same post by you previously. Then again, “re-binding” thoughts seems apropro.

  25. August 5, 2005 at 1:16 pm

    That library is why I liked Beauty & the Beast even while I was working for Disney and generally hating a lot of that stuff.

    I’m going to law school because it’s hard to pay for student loans while working for $20,000/year and political science degrees aren’t good for all that much more than that. Also, I harbor ambitions of being John Adams when I grow up.

    But having an excuse for my dream library is now an additional consideration. I mean, I already own enough books to fill a wall in an average size room… we won’t talk about how many are Star Trek novels and papers from various conferences I’ve been to.

  26. August 5, 2005 at 1:17 pm

    Can I make a confession akin to Nates?

    I went into physics initially as much to be around mad scientists out of a James Bond movie as to learn the secrets of the universe. I got my wish when, while still a student at BYU, I got a job a Los Alamos.

    Suddenly I got to go in heavily gated facilities guarded by guys with machine guns. I worked in a room with lasers and a big giant steel thingy where we used lasers to make nuclear explosions. I loved that room. I looked like something out of a movie with the thingy looking like that Imperial probe from the beginning of Empire Strikes Back. I loved the idea that the building next to mine was designing and testing neutral particle beam weapons for the Star Wars program. I relished that three buildings up in a heavily guarded facility were the nation’s nuclear secrets and plutonium stockpile. I thought having a security badge with my face on it was heaven. I loved the ninja dressed “swat” teams practicing drills against terrorists. I loved how my group was in charge of detecting nuclear, chemical or biological weapons during the first Gulf War, possibly being the key factor in an escalation of events.

    Yeah some of those things sound horrible. But dang if it didn’t fulfill every fantasy I’d had as a kid.

    Of course there were lots of other problems. Bureaucracy mainly. So I’d never have wanted to work there full time. But dang if in the early 90’s it wasn’t a dream come true.

  27. August 5, 2005 at 2:07 pm

    Couldn’t resist

  28. Ivan Wolfe
    August 5, 2005 at 3:41 pm

    Clark –

    so, did you ever put your head back and evilly laugh “MUAH HAH HAH – I WILL CRUSH YOU ALL!!!!!”

  29. manaen
    August 5, 2005 at 4:46 pm

    I had an abiding addiction to Church books and magazines — had complete IE and Relief Society magazines back into the 30’s and 1k+ books before I decided to try a fling IRL.

    What did I want to be around? My MBA’s in Finance…

  30. August 5, 2005 at 7:48 pm

    LOL. I did. Actually I did the, “no Mr. Bond. I expect you to die,” from Goldfinger. BTW – can I say that my favorite Simpsons episode of all time was the one where Homer is the manager of a secret base for Spectre?

    Too bad the inline graphics don’t work. I tried to put something funny up and all that appeared was “Couldn’t resist.”

    So here’s what I tried to put up.

    I thought it an interesting counterpoint to the Lawyer’s lust for books. (grin)

  31. August 5, 2005 at 8:01 pm

    BTW – what I actually wanted to be was Buckaroo Banzai crossed with James Bond.

  32. August 5, 2005 at 10:59 pm

    Buckaroo Bonzai! I’m still waiting for the sequel; that, and Big Trouble in Little China’s.

  33. August 6, 2005 at 1:33 am

    They actually almost had a TV series around 2000. Had a pilot for it and everything. I guess it didn’t work out. But I’d have loved a sequel with Buckaroo Banzai taking on the World Crime Syndicate. BTW – every time I drive past Wendover I think of the Jet Car.

  34. Ivan Wolfe
    August 6, 2005 at 9:51 am

    Most movie novelizations aren’t worth much, but the Buckaroo Banzai one has its own trippy delights.

  35. lyle
    August 6, 2005 at 10:47 am

    how/why does “comments off” square with clicking on the link of the last poster and then posting something yourself?

  36. August 6, 2005 at 12:09 pm

    Nate is linking to an old post. Comments are off on the new post, not the original, where we are.

  37. Allen Lambert
    December 5, 2005 at 2:11 am

    Alito will soon make the 5th Catholic on the Supreme Court at the same time. And there have been numerous others. Why no Mormon in past 60 years? Does it have to do with the motivation of LDS students for pursuing law?
    My impression (non-scientific sample) is that LDS students in law school, especially (unfortunately) at BYU, is pretty materialistic and not oriented to higher ideals like (saving) the Constitution, designing a better legal system, etc.
    Noel Reynolds once told me that after a few years of teaching jurisprudence in BYU Law School he stopped offering it there and taught it in Pol. Sci and Philos. because so few BYU law students seemed interested in it or in anything other than corporate and other forms of lawyering for money.

  38. December 5, 2005 at 11:09 am

    “lawyering for money. ”

    Is there any other way? (grin)

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