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