A Liberal Arts Seminar for Lawyers

My sabbatical leave at Grinnell College in 1982 prompted me to think about ways to provide intellectual stimulation and enrichment for practicing lawyers. This reflection resulted in my organizing “Renewing Fealty to the Law: A Liberal Arts Seminar for Lawyers” at the College in June 1984.[1]

My invitation to the Seminar stated, “Have you ever been bored while sitting in a large hotel banquet room listening to a continuing legal education lecturer? Have you ever regretted your inability to find or make time to read some general books about the law? Have you ever wondered about the significance of what we do for a living? Have you ever longed for the opportunity to take time out of the hurly-burly of practice to meet with other lawyers and discuss some of the broader issues of law and the practice?”

If the recipient had ever said “yes” to any of these questions, I urged them to come to the seminar. Twenty-six lawyers did and joined  the five seminar leaders for a weekend at the College.

Frank Coffin

The keynote speaker was the Honorable Frank M. Coffin, Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in New England.[2] I had met him in the Fall of 1982 when we were both on the Visiting Committee for the University of Chicago Law School. I had mentioned to him that I had used his book, The Ways of a Judge, in the undergraduate course I had taught at Grinnell earlier that year. The ensuing conversation revealed that we both firmly believed that there was a profound need for lawyers and judges to read, think, and talk about broader issues involving law and the profession.

For the seminar I prepared a collection of Judge Coffin’s unpublished speeches that I entitled “Lawyers and Judges–The Essential Humanists in a Technological Society.” My Introduction to this booklet said that his speeches “recount the observations of a sensitive, profound individual caught in the demands of an increasingly technical, more business-like profession.” The speeches were organized into sections about constitutional law, lawyering and judging. The booklet also contained bibliographies of his judicial opinions, books and articles and reviews of his book, The Ways of a Judge.

Judge Coffin’s speech at the Grinnell seminar, Finding Serenity in the Practice of Law, defined “serenity” as “an inner calm built of three components: (1) regaining a sense of control of work and life style; (2) repositioning the individual at the center of the stage, whether we focus on the lawyer or the client; and (3) restoring a sense of framework, of perspective, of being aware of where we have come from, who we are, how to carry on a noble tradition.”

Such serenity, Coffin said, should give us “a better chance of remaining sane, of avoiding burnout, and of retaining our motivation and momentum.” It also should make us better counselors and advisors or better lawyers in the grand tradition.

To this end, Judge Coffin proposed humanizing the law office. Lawyers share their experiences and insights with others in the firm. Retired lawyers talk about their recollections. Develop “story-telling” about the law for lay people. Organize social activities. Collect oral histories. Provide sabbatical leaves. Conduct retreats and seminars on broader topics. Provide lawyers in residence for law schools. Host academics and judges in residence at law firms.

He also suggested developing other models for delivery of legal services by smaller groups. Finally Judge Coffin reminded us of the importance of being familiar with the great works of civilization that shed light on the human predicament.

This pursuit of serenity, he concluded, should help us “keep the law a humanistic profession worthy of our fealty.”

Judge Coffin, Duane Krohnke, Jim Laue

Other discussion leaders at the seminar were Grinnell’s Parker Professor of History Al Jones on “American Legal History;” James H. Laue, Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the University of Missouri (St. Louis),[3] on “Lawyers and Dispute Resolution;”  Victor G. Rosenblum, Professor of Law and Political Science at Northwestern University, on “Jurisprudence; ” and Gene E. Wilkins, an Indianapolis attorney and Adjunct Professor at Indiana University, on “The Humane Practice of Law.”

One of the participants in the seminar afterwards said the College “has a quite palpable aura” and was “the place where [many of our enduring values] . . . were refined, buttressed or altered in an atmosphere which required the free exchange and testing of ideas.”


[1] Post: A Sabbatical Leave from Lawyering (May 26, 2011).

[2]  Wikipedia, Frank Morey Coffin, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Morey_Coffin; Lewis, Frank Coffin, Chief Judge of a Federal Appeals Court, Dies at 90, N.Y. Times (Dec. 17, 2009). See also Post: Adventures of a History Detective (April 5, 2011) (oral history interview of Judge Coffin in John F. Kennedy Presidential Library).

[3] Jim Laue was a personal friend and the husband of a high school and Grinnell College classmate. In the Johnson Administration he was working on resolving racial conflicts for the federal government’s Community Relations Service and was with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. President Carter in 1979 appointed Laue as co-chair of a commission that recommended the establishment of the U.S. Institute of Peace, which happened in 1984. He was a Vice Chancellor of the Washington University in St. Louis, 1971-74; the Director of the Center for Metropolitan Studies, University of Missouri-St. Louis, 1974-87; and the Lynch Professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, 1987 until his death in 1993. (George Mason University Libraries, Guide to the Papers of James H. Laue, 1947-1993, http://sca.gmu.edu/finding_aids/laue.html.)

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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