Jurisdictional Limits on Lawyers: A Problem Play?

shakespeare measure for measure
A look at what Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure can tell us about modern day legal practice.

shakespeare measure for measureMeasure for Measure is often categorized as one of William Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” thanks to its mixture of comedic and tragic elements and the unsatisfactorily artificial resolution to the conflict presented. Perhaps it is only natural, then, that in reading the play, I might have difficulty properly formulating a theme centered on lawyers and legal issues.

“We have strict statutes and most biting laws.”

For the uninitiated, the story of the play involves the Duke of Venice abandoning his city to the authority of the puritanical Lord Angelo, who chooses to execute the law exactly as written. The first victim of his merciless regime is Claudio, a young man who has impregnated Juliet, who is essentially his wife except that they have not completed all of the rigorous requirements of the time to be officially married in the eyes of God and the State. The main plot details Claudio’s sister Isabella’s attempted appeal to Angelo to pardon her brother, rather than remove his head.

“Good counselors lack no clients.”

While notions of divine law versus mercy and how to best carry out the will of God are at the heart of the play, there are no lawyers to be found anywhere in the text. Yet there is a reference to lawyers that grabbed my attention. It comes in Act I, Scene II: “Good counselors lack no clients.”

Out of context, that line means nothing, except that if you’re good at something, you will always find someone to take advantage of your skills. But in the context of the play, it means something very different. The line comes in response to a subplot in which the aforementioned Lord Angelo’s proclamation leads to shutting down the city’s brothels. Mistress Overdone, the proprietor of one such tawdry establishment, bewails her situation and wonders what will become of her, to which her bawd colleague Pompey replies: “Come, fear you not: good counselors lack no clients: though you change your place, you need not change your trade…”

“What’s the difference between a lawyer and a prostitute?”

As it turns out, the chief reference to lawyers in all of Measure for Measure actually compares them to prostitutes! But the lines of verse and the problem facing Mistress Overdone make me think of outdated obstacles that stand in the way of lawyers facing difficult economic times, during which paying work can be hard to find and keep. When work is no longer available in Venice, Mistress Overdone can take her (ahem) “skills” to new places. But when work is scarce for lawyers, we are restricted from practicing outside the jurisdiction in which we are licensed (without studying for, taking, paying for, and passing another state’s bar exam, in most cases).

Perhaps in an era when thousands of law school graduates are leaving school without jobs, the time has come to rethink antiquated notions of jurisdictional limitations in order to expand career opportunities for everyone beyond the state in which they happen to live.

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