Law as Language: Reading Law and Reading Literature

James Boyd White, University of Michigan Law School


The lawyer and the literary critic, as readers of texts, face difficulties and enjoy opportunities that are far more alike than may seem at first to be the case: in a deep sense, I believe, they are the same. The lawyer must read the statutes, cases, and other documents that it is his task to understand, to interpret, and to make real in the world. This is essential to his work. Of course, he is not only a reader but a writer as well; his kind of reading completes itself only in the process of speech and writing by which he argues for one result or another, shapes his client's legal arrangements to avoid a particular hazard, or otherwise acts verbally in the world. His reading is by nature a communal activity, and he must be always alert to the readings that may be proposed by others. Indeed, as we shall see, reading a legal text is often not so much reading for a single meaning as reading for a range of possible meanings. Law is in a full sense a language, for it is a way of reading and writing and speaking and, in doing these things, it is a way of maintaining a culture, largely a culture of argument, which has a character of its own.