Brutal honesty, in the sense of that rare ability of professional introspection, is hard to come by in the law and perhaps, in all fairness to the 99.9% of lawyers who are honest, honesty is perhaps not the right word. Law is a complex area, the cousin of religion, with nothing to really sink your teeth into like the apple was to Isaac Newton. Still, for a couple of years in law school and then for several decades as a lawyer, the lawyer is quickly immersed in an invisible patronage system which inculcates an inherent loathing of true and honest introspection of the law by its very priests. This creates an environment where change is virtually impossible and where judicial influence overreaches to stifle reform. Ongoing adaptation, reform, is a necessary ingredient of all modern institutions, aka change management. Lawyers tend to either keep their mouths shut on reform or defer to the judges, neither a truly honest contribution to the adaptation of the institutions of law and justice of which they are the priests.
This is why Fred Rodell is one of the most amazing legal thinkers of all time because in spite of having gone through that gauntlet, he emerged as a brutally honest and very outspoken critic of the refusal of the contemporary minds of the law to adapt, to change, to evolve. His opinion on the old law and aging legal institutions a rare but clear voice like a bird call cutting through the morning air. He knew a naked emperor when he saw one.
Fred Rodells are extremely rare because criticism of the law and true and genuine and motivation for reform is not welcome and is rarely a good career move for any attorney but Rodell didn't care: law and justice first, Fred Rodell second.
"Rodell paid for his criticism of the legal profession. Dean Eugene Rostow of Yale Law School refused to name him to an endowed faculty chair as are most other tenured faculty. He and many others felt that it was because (of) his active criticism of the legal profession."
Rodell was born in 1907. If there is any shortcoming in his credentials, it is that he never actually practiced law and was never a member of any bar association. He once said:
"By the time I got through law school, I had decided that I never wanted to practice law. I never have."
In law school (Yale, graduating in 1931), he had an opportunity of befriending the slightly older and later to become United States Supreme Court Justice William Orville Douglas. They both cherished a lifetime of correspondence on the issues of law reform.
Rodell found a teaching job at Yale University and taught law for 40 years starting in 1933. He taught legal writing, tax law, constitutional law and labor law.
In 1939, he published his first book, the much quoted Woe Unto You Lawyers. He was very harsh on the profession calling it a high-class racket and adding that if the citizenry only knew:
".... how many of the mighty processes of the law are merely logical legerdemain (deception or trickery), they would not long let the lawyers lead them around by the nose...
"Learning the lawyers' talk and the lawyers' way of thinking - learning to discuss the pros and cons of, say, pure food laws in terms of affection with a public interest as against interference with freedom of contract -is very much like learning to work cryptograms or play bridge. It requires concentration and memory and some analytic ability, and for those who become proficient it can be a stimulating intellectual game.
"Yet those who work cryptograms or play bridge never pretend that their mental efforts, however difficult and involved, have any significance beyond the game they are playing. Whereas those who play the legal game not only pretend but insist that their intricate ratiocinations in the realm of pure thought have a necessary relation to the solution of practical problems.
"It is through the medium of their weird and wordy mental gymnastics that the lawyers lay down the rules under which we live. And it is only because the average man cannot play their game, and so cannot see for himself how intrinsically empty of meaning their playthings are, that the lawyers continue to get away with it."
Hard things for lawyers to hear but necessary opinions to receive.
Thus began professor Rodell's career of aggressive, no-holds-barred approach to genuine and ongoing law reform and a distinct distaste for the old boy's club that guards the hallways, still, to this day, of the halls of justice. And that old boy's club did not like Fred Rodell and ostracized him at most every opportunity. On one occasion, a group of legal stogies from England refused to appear on the podium of the same legal conference bill as him. But Rodell taught his philosophy to his students and put out book after book calling lawyers to their responsibilities with their sacred employment.
He was beset with significant health issues in 1965 which curtailed his prodigious writing. On the occasion of his retirement from Yale University in 1973, one of his teaching colleagues described him in these words:
"Here’s to Give ‘Em Hell Fred Rodell, irresponsible, irrefutable, irreversible, irrevocable, irremovable and totally irresistible."
Rodell died in 1980. Justice Douglas wrote, in the Yale Law Journal:
"Fred was no Simon Legree (i.e. Uncle Tom's Cabin) — not a task master in any form - but he was a confirmed iconoclast.
"He challenged well-known principles, probed them for frailty....
"His mind has always been a few paces ahead of events."
- Douglas, William O., In Honor of Fred Rodell, 84 YLJ 1 (1974)
- NOTE 1: Fred Rodell HALT Advisor Dies at 73, 1:3 Americans for Legal Reform (1980). HALT stands for Help Abolish Legal Tyranny!
- Wright, Charles A., Goodbye to Fred Rodell, 89:8 YLJ 1455 (1980)
- Vinson, Ken, Fred Rodell's Case Against the Law, 24 Fla. St. U. L. Rev. 107 (1996-1997)