Skip to content

What are the best books about lawyers?

|Written By Christopher Moore
Read any good legal history lately? I''m starting a list. It''s a good time for reading and writing in legal history. Lots of scholarship is being done in law schools and history departments. Courts, law firms, and other institutions are commissioning substantial histories. Quite a few memoirs and biographies are appearing. Oral history projects are popping up here and there across the country.
That's History - By Christopher Moore
And venues for publication, not just in the scholarly press, but through lawyer-supported organizations, most notably that publishing machine The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, whose founding 25 years ago transformed the work of legal history, are more numerous.

So what is the product like? I'm thinking not so much of crime stories as the profession's inside stories: studies of lawyers, judges, legal institutions, and how they work.

As I noted in a recent column, biographies and memoirs of judges are a booming field these days. Bora Laskin by Philip Girard (2005) is as good as any, fascinating about the social and professional history of the 20th century Canadian bar. But take your pick; biographies and memoirs of judges are plentiful.

The shelf of lawyers' memoirs and biographies is shorter. Greenspan: The Case for the Defence appeared in 1987; it already needs a sequel. Ian Scott's memoir To Make a Difference (2001) is enlivened by coverage of his political career, his sexual orientation, and his stroke, but Scott's ever the advocate, and there's quite a bit about his legal work. George Ferguson's Robinette (2003) is one top lawyer's take on what made another top lawyer so masterly.

A little further afield, the Reminiscences of Charles Durand, Barrister (1897) is a crazy-quilt memoir by a long-lived and ever-hopeful Ontario lawyer of the 19th century.

If you have a taste for substantial scholarship, there are rich pickings, particularly because the Osgoode Society has published so much. Its series Essays in the History of Canadian Law is now eight volumes and thousands of pages thick. I like the first and eighth as much as any.

Other notable scholarship courtesy of the Osgoode Society: Paul Romney's Mr. Attorney (1986), which is very rich on the intersection of politics and law at the office of attorney general. John Saywell's history of constitutional law cases, The Lawmakers (2002), has a point of view very different from Romney's. Or James Walker's Race," Rights and the Law (1997), which is a powerhouse study of how racial attitudes have always determined laws.

On the legal status on women, there's nothing better than Constance Backhouse's Petticoats and Prejudice (1991).

In the miscellaneous category, there's Elizabeth Bethune Campbell's Heiress vs. The Establishment (2004), an outsider's vivid look at Toronto law and lawyers back in the 1920s. Brendan O'Brian's Speedy Justice (1992) explores the night in 1804 when the schooner Speedy took much of the Upper Canadian legal elite to the bottom of Lake Ontario.

That's almost a dozen. I can't help thinking there are still lots of gaps: history of legal aid, history of legal education, more law firm histories, more published oral histories, more small-town, lower-court, Main-Street practice histories. The whole history of corporate law is mostly a blank: what do those guys do all day, anyway? It's not hard to think of lots more work that could yet be done.

Yet there are some impressive books there, and some good reading. What else should be on the list? Send your suggestions for interesting, impressive, neglected Canadian legal history to me at cmed@sympatico.ca or care of Law Times, and we'll see if we can expand this list of recommended readings before the summer cottage season arrives.

Christopher Moore is the author of McCarthy T?trault: Building Canada's Premier Law Firm (2005) and other works in legal history. His web site is www.christophermoore.ca
cover image

DIGITAL EDITION

Subscribers get early and easy access to Law Times.

Law Times Poll


It's unknown how widely police in Ontario utilize controversial surveillance techniques that can capture private data from non-targets in criminal investigations. Do you think there should be formal requirements to release this information?
RESULTS ❯