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A View of the Legal Profession from a mid-twelfth-century monastery
By Amelia J. Uelmen
Fordham Law Review, No. 1517 (2003)
Introduction: Critics of trends in the legal profession often hark back to an elusive “golden age” in which ideals of service and respect for the truth tempered lawyers’ seemingly prevalent instincts toward ambition and manipulative greed. As the American Bar Association Commission on Professionalism reflected in 1986, “Perhaps the golden age of professionalism has always been a few years before the time that the living can remember. Legend tends to seem clearer than reality.”
This essay looks back quite a few years-certainly to before the time the living can remember-to the mid-twelfth century, an era that some have marked as the dawn of the modern legal profession in Western European culture. An initial glance indicates that it was no “golden age” for the profession. Even in the twelfth century, lawyers were the object of popular hostility and scathing criticism Probing deeper, the patterns of critique reveal a certain timelessness, and a sense that the tensions imbedded in both the initial and enduring framework of the legal profession reflect not so much the weaknesses of a particular generation, but rather essential struggles in the heart of human experience.
For some it may seem counterintuitive to travel so far back in time for insight into “professionalism.” How can an era shrouded in darkness, so permeated by backward and barbaric practices, shed any light on the legal profession today? Even sensitive legal historians who generally avoid stereotypical images of the medieval “superstitious bumpkin” have nonetheless been unable to resist taking their jabs at the twelfth century.
To compound the challenge of looking so far back, this essay will focus not on secular texts, but on mid-twelfth-century religious and theological sources, thus posing an alternative to characterizations of the “disengagement of the two spheres of the sacred and the profane” as “a release of energy and creativity analogous to a process of nuclear fission.” Further, at the center of this analysis is a text from a twelfth-century Cistercian monk, Bernard of Clairvaux, hardly the most cited authority on the legal profession.
Thus this essay begins with an invitation to suspend judgment by giving this seemingly obscure time and these sources so rarely discussed in current legal circles a chance to speak. One may be surprised by how they shed new light on the timeless and timely questions and dilemmas of today’s legal profession.