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Legal eagles
How two great jurists shaped modern law

Archived article from Dec 11, 1998

By Michael Sepanic  

Most people associate legal history with dry scholarly research, dusty tomes and wizened scholars. For Camden law Professor N.E.H. Hull, however, this field yielded a compelling tale of subtle complexities, dynamic characters and intricate subplots -- a sweeping epic that spans more than a century of turmoil and growth, both of the United States and of its legal profession.

Her book "Roscoe Pound and Karl Llewellyn: Searching for an American Jurisprudence" (University of Chicago Press) recently won the 1998 Scribes Book Award from the American Society of Writers on Legal Subjects. It also won praise from Choice, a periodical for librarians and book retailers, which called the book "so creatively organized and written with such charm, wit and elan that it reads like a carefully crafted novel."

Hull spent more than 10 years researching the lives of these two men who defined American legal thought for the 20th century. "Roscoe Pound and Karl Llewellyn were the most quoted and admired, the most disputed and abused jurisprudents of their day, and that day spanned the first 60 years of the 20th century," Hull maintains. "Whether they're aware of it or not, America's lawyers are profoundly influenced by these men."

Pound, who served as dean of Harvard Law School for 20 years, left his indelible mark on several generations of lawyers and law professors. Llewellyn, remembered for his pragmatic dictum, "Law was what law officials did," had a direct impact on the drafting of the Uniform Commercial Code, which still governs commercial transactions across the country.

The disagreements and debates between these two legal titans helped to deconstruct the formalist argument that law was discovered, not made, says Hull, and aided the transition from a 19th-century, antiquated view of the law to an American, 20th-century perspective.

"After the Civil War, scholars and practitioners sought to redefine the status quo formalism that denied lawmakers the flexibility to respond to ever-changing demands," explains Hull. "The debate between Llewellyn and Pound opened dialogues toward the more practical realism that permeates today's legal climate."

Hull's fascination with Llewellyn and Pound began while she was a law student in Georgia and resurfaced years later in the Harvard Law School's archives, where she stumbled upon a cache of letters exchanged between the legal giants and opened a whole new perspective on one of the nation's most puzzling -- and influential -- relationships.

The two could not have had more disparate personalities. Pound, Hull writes, "was a gentle pedant with a will of iron whose happiest hours were spent at his desk at Harvard Law School." Llewellyn, on the other hand, "was a mercurial romantic whose joy and despair in the law spilled into pages of anguished poetry and exuberant lectures." Yet both were on a similar quest, drawing bits and pieces from a wide and eclectic range of disciplines in their search for a specifically American approach to justice.

"I had been led to believe that there was real hatred and animosity between the two, which their public discourse would appear to support," says Hull, noting that her research provided a different perspective.

"These men were never bosom buddies, but there was an intellectual attachment between them. They were always respectful and sometimes admiring of each other. After all, they were searching for the same grail, and the jurisprudence that they created -- their way of looking at law -- still dominates. They helped usher in a more modern approach to legal thought."

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Last Updated: May 30, 2006

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