Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and the musical Les Miserables strike resonant tones for many Americans, particularly those million-plus lawyers practicing in the United States. I am one of those million. Like thousands of attorneys since Abraham Lincoln’s death, I have tried to apply his recorded wisdom into my everyday law practice. Les Miserables, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, has been a mainstay of the theatre for almost thirty years. Having seen it several times, I have been both elevated by its compassionate sense of justice and enervated by its real-to-life villain, Inspector Javert.
Lincoln and Javert epitomize two opposite ends of lawyers’ approaches to the legal system. Civil litigation battles are often tortuous and long. Defendants can feel like Jean Valjean, Les Miserables’ protagonist, hounded for life by Inspector Javert. Litigation hurts, especially when it is pursued with little human decency or compassion. It’s little wonder that Abraham Lincoln, one of our greatest Presidents and lawyers, said:
Discourage litigation. . . Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how often the nominal winner is often the real loser – in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker, the lawyer has a superior opportunity of becoming a good man. There will also be enough business. Never stir up litigation. A worse man can scarcely be found than one who does this.
There are lawyers inflamed with the fanaticism of Les Miserables’ Inspector Javert. Their communications are rife with threats. They lack compassion, seek only dominance, and pursue a vengeful, punitive form of justice. They should take Lincoln to heart, and they would benefit from his advocacy for a just peace that does not sacrifice human dignity. Javert’s end is cautionary; evil destroys itself.
Litigation is sometimes necessary when all efforts at compromise have failed. Lawsuits should be waged as a last resort and fought with right intentions. In such litigation the poor should not suffer under the might of the rich. Human decency should not be sacrificed to expediency. The vengeful fanaticism of Les Miserables’ Inspector Javert is litigation at its worst. Spielberg’s Lincoln, compassionate and fully engaged in the struggle for justice and fairness, surely illustrates the virtues called for by “the better angels of our nature.”