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May|June 2002

Web of Words: Anthony Kronman


During my first semester in law school 30 years ago, I came to a realization. I was working on my first research assignment and had found a case that seemed relevant to my topic. I was "Shepardizing" it—using an old-fashioned digest called Shepard's to trace the later cases in which my case figured as a precedent, pulling volumes down from the library shelves in a laborious physical process that computers have made archaic. It was late at night and I was tired. My research had brought me at last to a dead end, to a case that had no relevance to mine but wandered off in a different direction.

Here, I realized, one strand of cases crossed another. It occurred to me that every line of cases, that every single case, must be connected to every other in some circuitous fashion. I looked at the room around me, filled with books that were filled with cases. You could pick a case at random, I thought, and, working backward or forward in time, get from it to any other. The books in the law library were not just touching physically on the shelves. They were joined internally, too. They were all speaking to each other, invoking each other, arguing with each other, in a single great conversation that encompassed every case ever decided.

To come into the law, as a lawyer or judge, litigant or juror, witness or bystander, is to join this conversation. To study the law as an historian or challenge it as a critic is to join the conversation too. All the forms of thought for which this magazine will provide space are part of the conversation as well. Whatever one wants to do with the law, whatever one hopes to say about it, must be accomplished within this circle of conversation, a circle as large as human life though distinct from it in the way a poem is distinct from the heartbreak or joy it expresses.

Those who make their careers in the law participate in this conversation in a special way. They are at home in it—expert at its practices and familiar with its forms. For them, professionally at least, there is nothing but this conversation, nothing beyond it to which they might turn for comfort or help. Their education in the law is the process of getting used to living within a horizon of words. For lawyers, judges, and others in the law, words are essential tools. But words are also something more. They are the medium in which the work of the law is done, in which the law itself is enacted. Apart from the words that judges and others employ, their work has for them no existence.

In my role as a law professor I once traveled with a student to a prison in upstate New York. She was working on a project at the prison. I asked what had drawn her to the project. She said, "I wanted to see where the law ends." What she meant, I think, is that the law often ends in compulsion or force. The moment of compulsion may be postponed and sometimes avoided. But at the end of every lawsuit stands the sheriff, ready to execute judgment, and at the end of every prosecution one finds the jailer and his prison. An unsentimental view suggests that the law's real function is merely to ensure that the force behind it is properly used, and that the law's conversation always ends in something beyond speech—in the silence of force, the substitution of compulsion for words.

There is truth in the unsentimental view. But the fact that the law ends in compulsion is something to regret and resist. The law seeks to eliminate what violence it can and to regularize what is left. Its goal is to substitute persuasion for force, to spread the web of words over the world until no brutality remains. This goal can never be fully attained. The law, like everything human, is touched by our imperfection. It can never be entirely rid of violence.

But the law aims to replace violence with words. It aspires to push back the frontiers of silence. It seeks to expand the kingdom of conversation beyond its existing borders. This is law's dream, and the dream of all who enter its web of words. And it is the dream of this magazine too, which is founded on a confidence in the power of words and ready to contribute to the great conversation.

Anthony Kronman is dean of Yale Law School and chairman of Legal Affairs' corporate board.

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