Becoming a Lawyer Through Patchett’s Prose

For everyone who’s considered becoming a lawyer, for any reason at all. 

There are many reasons to love Ann Patchett’s 2016 novel, Commonwealth. A taut, yet expansive novel that covers the lives of a blended family over fifty years, I imagine that its themes would elicit smiles and nostalgia from people across the country. For me, the structure of this family – comprised of four parents and six children – felt familiar, in a sense.

My mother is one of thirteen children, and my father is one of five boys. Although I only have one sister, Patchett’s descriptions of the childhood adventures of Cal Cousins, Jeanette Cousins, Holly Cousins, Albie Cousins, Franny Keating, and Caroline Keating made me recall the endless days of summer with my sister and cousins in Louisiana & North Carolina. The novel expertly covers the love, loss, joys, and frustrations of half of a century, but one aspect of the story particularly stood out to me.

As a lawyer, I was drawn to the cases of three lawyers, or would-be lawyers, in the book – Franny, her stepfather Bert, and her father Fix. The wildly divergent paths of these three characters to law school made me heavily contemplate my own path from kindergarten straight through the end of law school. It made me deliberately consider the question – who gets to go to law school? Coming from another direction, these three characters made me wonder who should go to law school?

Admittedly, prior to reading Commonwealth, I’d convinced myself that I had the answers to these inquiries. I was an avid John Grisham fan as a boy, and I have several lawyers in my extended family. Becoming a lawyer seemed like a laudable, sensible career path for me. I approached it at a breakneck pace and now, at 28, I find myself settled into my career and advancing through it. Reading Commonwealth made me examine the privileges I’ve been afforded as a young attorney and think about how those opportunities did – or didn’t – play out in the lives of Bert, Franny, and Fix.

Take Bert, for example – a wealthy white man who considered being a lawyer his birthright. Coming from a family of lawyers, he graduates from the elite University of Virginia School of Law and starts his career as a deputy district attorney. After he breaks up the marriage of Fix and Beverly Keating, and moves back to Virginia, he easily entertains all six children in a home built on the foundation of his family wealth. He moves through life with every benefit of that supposed birthright in place – at every turn.

Moving from Bert to Franny provides an interesting study in contrasts. Franny ultimately attends the prestigious University of Chicago School of Law for two years prior to dropping out. Her reflection on the experience provides insight into how many aspiring lawyers feel as they proceed through law school in the twenty-first century:

“Going to law school had been a terrible error in judgment that she had made in hopes of pleasing other people, and because of that error in judgment she was in debt like some sort of Dickens character, like the kind of person who wound up on the Oprah show weeping, without a single skill to show for it…”

Even with an acknowledgement of the significant risks, Franny takes the courageous step of walking away from law school entirely – a decision I must say that I considered myself toward the middle of my second year at Louisiana State University. Leading up to this point, Franny almost exclusively took career guidance from both her father and step-father – the point of agreement between the two men being that Franny & Caroline should go to law school, “because each man had seen [it] in himself.”

With the fierce sense of independence that she developed over the course of her life, she breaks free from the thoroughly vetted expectation that is placed upon her. Her reflection on her decision to leave law school began to shift my thinking on the current structure of the American legal education system; however, the journey of her father, Fix Keating, is the part of Commonwealth that completely converted me.

Fix Keating didn’t initially win me over as a character, if for no other reason than his occupation – a police officer. As a civil rights attorney – specifically one who came of lawyer-age in the wake of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Botham Jean, and other Black victims of state-sanctioned violence – I am, at best, intensely skeptical of policing across the history of America, including the present. Even with this recognition of history, as Patchett’s narrative unfolded, a soft spot for Fix emerged. He approaches the middle of his life and decides to take on the daunting task of enrolling in an evening program at Southwestern College of Law.

Upon receiving this news from Franny, Bert’s disdain becomes readily apparent. He utters ‘Dear God’ in response to this announcement, manifesting how he feels about an unranked law school like Southwestern. He continues:

“I went to the University of Virginia. But I didn’t do it at night. I went the regular way.”

With this self-assuredness and arrogance on full display, Bert sets up his expectation of failure for Fix. Despite Fix’s diligence, it unfortunately plays out that way. Fix successfully completes law school and then sits for the California bar exam. One attempt is followed by another, which is followed by a third – eventually transforming into an unspoken return to normalcy:

“…and so Fix sat for the test the third time, and when he didn’t pass then, he stopped. No one talked about law school any more, except insofar as it applied to Caroline and Franny.”

Caroline does go on to become a successful lawyer, following in Bert’s footsteps. But the journeys of Fix and Franny were the ones that utterly transformed my thinking – even as someone who did law school “the regular way.” That Franny and Fix realized that law school and its aftermath weren’t going to play out exactly according to plan – and persevered through life anyway – brings me to a couple conclusions. One, the rigid, costly structure of full-time legal education programs can often be exclusionary and prohibitive. Moreover, the American legal education system could certainly stand to be revamped – perhaps in a two-year learning, one-year apprenticeship model previously endorsed by President Obama.

I began Commonwealth thinking that a three-year, full-time J.D. program was likely the best of a set of flawed options – primarily because that’s how my journey unfolded. I ended the book assured that Franny and Fix would’ve been phenomenal lawyers – and that Bert’s privilege was pretty much the only thing that made him an attorney. For Fix and Franny, had a more flexible, accommodating system been in place, they may very well have become Attorneys and Counselors at Law.

If nothing else, Commonwealth is a gem. It reinforced the idea that, as I proceed through my career as a lawyer, I will always strive to be aware of the privileges I’ve been afforded and keep the paths of this masterful book’s characters in mind. All of it will inform my work to make the legal system more accessible for those who should be practicing and for all who seek equal justice under the law.

– Andrew Hairston




About andrewrhairston

Andrew Reginald Hairston is a civil rights attorney and writer based in Austin, TX. He is presently the School-to-Prison Pipeline Project Director of Texas Appleseed. Mr. Hairston is also the secretary of the board of Learn Together, Live Together - a school integration non-profit based in Washington, DC. He earned his law degree from Louisiana State University in May 2016, where he was a Faculty Scholar. During his time at LSU, he served as the President of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) from 2014 to 2015, as well as the 1L Representative of the organization from 2013 to 2014. While he was the president of LSU BLSA, he served as a member of the Law Center's Diversity Task Force. Mr. Hairston refined his commitment to racial justice work as a law student. He worked as a law clerk for the LSU Parole and Reentry Clinic, and he subsequently served as a student attorney for the LSU Juvenile Defense Clinic. As a third-year student, he was appointed to the Trial Advocacy Board, and he won the Dean's Cup Senior Appellate Challenge during his final semester at the LSU Law Center. Mr. Hairston received his bachelor's degree, cum laude, from Howard University. At Howard, he was actively involved in the Alternative Spring Break program. He worked as a site coordinator to develop and execute the initiative's first trip to Baltimore in the spring of 2013. From 2017 to 2019, Mr. Hairston served as a staff attorney at Advancement Project, a multi-racial civil rights organization in Washington, D.C. He began his legal career as the George N. Lindsay Fellow and Associate Counsel at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law from 2016 to 2017. He is licensed to practice law in Louisiana.
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1 Response to Becoming a Lawyer Through Patchett’s Prose

  1. Daryl Hairston says:

    It is totally awesome that you are continuing to search for resources that will help compliment, encourage and enhance your field of study. You persevered. You did not give up. You are now on a path to capture another bar exam. The field is ripe and there are vulnerable people who are looking for a solid, passionate person, like yourself, to help them seek justice and peace. Press on! Love you!

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