“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
– “The Second Part of King Henry the Sixth,” Act 4, Scene 2.
In the pantheon of Shakespearean creations, Dick the Butcher is no Othello. But to anyone who follows law or lawyers, his modest proposal has become an overly familiar friend. It is a staple of law school commencements, momentarily introspective speeches at bar meetings, and legal reporters looking for an erudite and handy way of writing that lawyer-bashing is nothing new.
In their rebuttals, lawyers and lawyerphiles note by rote that Dick is the lowliest of knaves, a follower of the nefarious insurrectionist Jack Cade, who heartily seconds Dick’s suggestion in his less familiar response: “Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings; but I say, ’tis the bee’s wax, for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.”
But despite these caveats, the Butcher’s flock flourishes. His sentiment can now be found in a variety of mediums, including coffee mugs, T-shirts, pillows and soon, perhaps, at the Cannes Film Festival.
Souvenir plates inscribed “Let’s Kill All the Lawyers” combine the two passions of Robert van Kluyve of Madison, Va.: English literature and pottery. For more than 20 years, Mr. van Kluyve has been making them, along with companion plates for other professions (e.g. “God heals, and the doctor takes the fee”; “If all the economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion”).
For a while, Mr. van Kluyve sold his plates through the Folger Shakespeare Library. More recently, he placed advertisements in The New Yorker and The National Law Journal. These produced orders for some 300 plates, placed largely, the artist said, by the mothers and spouses of either lawyers or those who hate lawyers but have to use them.
Whether out of humorlessness or hypersensitivity or whatever, lawyers seem disinclined to buy the plates for themselves; the notice in the Law Journal netted a grand total of one order. So Mr. van Kluyve also offers plates with another, more lawyer-friendly message, from “The Taming of the Shrew”: “Do as adversaries do in law, strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.”
Still, one lawyer, Finn M. W. Caspersen of Wilmington, Del., ordered “Kill all the lawyers” plates as Christmas presents for six friends, including Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter and Robert Clark, Dean of the Harvard Law School. Justice Souter would not say whether he had received the plate or if it now hangs in his chambers. Dean Clark acknowledged its arrival but said he would most certainly not display it in his office, even though Mr. Caspersen is a Harvard Law School graduate and fund raiser.
“I disagree with the sentiment, quite vehemently,” he said. “I’m not quite sure what the message was behind it, but I’ll talk to him and straighten him out.”
This year, Lighten Up Films Inc. of Farmington Hills, Mich., will release “Let’s Kill All the Lawyers,” a chronicle of a young man’s preprofessional angst. In it, the hero rejects a legal career to become a gardener at a retreat for burned-out lawyers.
The story is loosely based on the experiences of Ron Senkowski, the film’s director and writer. Mr. Senkowski landed in the 99th percentile when he took the Law School Admissions Test, but his legal career ended prematurely when he devoted the essay portion of the examination to a diatribe on lawyers. It included a quotation from H. L. Mencken worthy, perhaps, of one of Mr. van Kluyve’s plates: “If all of the lawyers were hanged tomorrow, and their bones sold to a mah-jongg factory, we’d be freer and safer, and our taxes would be reduced by almost half.”
Shannon Hamed, the film’s producer, hopes “Let’s Kill All the Lawyers” is a sleeper, in the manner of “She’s Gotta Have It,” and thinks the catchy title might help. “It’s our greatest asset,” she said.
Though Pamela Du Val embroiders more than 1,000 adages on her pillows, “Let’s kill all the lawyers” cushions are perhaps the most popular item in her Manhattan boutique on Lexington Avenue, between 63th and 64th Streets. She began making them three years ago and since then, she said, they’ve sold “like wildfire.” As disaffection with the bar has grown, sales of “Let’s kill” cushions have outstripped those of the previous best seller: “Old lawyers never die, they just lose their appeals.”
“People know that lawyers are brilliant and all that, but too expensive,” she said in a telephone interview. But when pressed to explain, she suddenly grew suspicious.
“Why are you asking me all these questions?” she asked. “Are you trying to sue me?”
LEAD: In reference to the review of ”Guilty Conscience,” (May 20) Leah D. Frank is inaccurate when she states that when Shakespeare had one of his characters state ”Let’s kill all the lawyers,” it was the corrupt, unethical lawyers he was referring to. Shakespeare’s exact line ”The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” was stated by Dick the Butcher in ”Henry VI,” Part II, act IV, Scene II, Line 73.
In reference to the review of ”Guilty Conscience,” (May 20) Leah D. Frank is inaccurate when she states that when Shakespeare had one of his characters state ”Let’s kill all the lawyers,” it was the corrupt, unethical lawyers he was referring to. Shakespeare’s exact line ”The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” was stated by Dick the Butcher in ”Henry VI,” Part II, act IV, Scene II, Line 73. Dick the Butcher was a follower of the rebel Jack Cade, who thought that if he disturbed law and order, he could become king. Shakespeare meant it as a compliment to attorneys and judges who instill justice in society.