Article: What Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ taught me about practicing law

The ABA Journal

Every practicing attorney is familiar with the prelaw literary canon—that list of books every law student should read. A Civil ActionTo Kill a MockingbirdThe Buffalo Creek Disaster. These books are meant to inspire a love of justice, hard work and a desire to fight for society’s underdogs.

We don’t usually include in the canon stories about lawyers with questionable ethics and political ambition who represent the rich and powerful. But such a work, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy and its depiction of the ever-scheming Thomas Cromwell, molded me into the lawyer I am today.

In summer 2010, I was a reluctant incoming law student. As a college senior in fall 2008, I had seen jobs vanish overnight after Lehman Brothers’ demise. That’s when I signed up for LSAT classes. I figured that law school was a good way to ride out the recession. I didn’t have ambitions about becoming the next Atticus Finch or the first Asian SCOTUS justice; I mostly was fueled by a desire to appease my parents by finding a respectable way to pass the time.

I Googled “books to read before law school” and dug into the resulting titles. In the evenings, I supplemented my syllabus with films such as Erin Brockovich and The Informant! I enjoyed the narratives but couldn’t relate to the David and Goliath stories that they depicted. I was glad we had crusaders such as A Civil Action’s Jan Schlichtmann fighting for environmental justice, but I didn’t know whether I could emulate him. I didn’t know whether I could risk my relationships, physical well-being and future career to pursue long-shot cases against corporate foes.

When classes began in late August, my law school reiterated the noble purpose of our new profession. Addressing the class of 2013, the dean referenced a long list of alumni who had gone on to stand up for everyday citizens in public service. I wondered: If I couldn’t channel the likes of Finch, did I have what it took to be a lawyer? Everywhere I looked, the role models presented to us students were people who had chosen to follow their principles, rather than market forces. Our professors were brilliant, and they had chosen a career writing about legal theory over practicing law.

Then I discovered Wolf Hall. First published in 2009, Wolf Hall tells the infamous story of King Henry VIII—his marriages, his renunciation of Catholicism, the beheadings that he ordered—from the perspective of Cromwell, a lawyer who was King Henry’s chief minister. When the novel opens, Cromwell is a mere assistant/employee of Cardinal Wolsey, perhaps the most powerful clergyman in England and a confidante of King Henry. Wolf Hall tracks Cromwell’s rise until he surpasses his predecessor.

Author Hilary Mantel holds a copy of 'Wolf Hall'
British author Hilary Mantel holds a copy of her historical fiction novel Wolf Hall after being awarded the 2009 Man Booker prize at the Guildhall in London. Photo by Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images.

In the character of Cromwell, I saw someone who dealt with moral ambiguities. Someone whose views did not necessarily align with those of his clients. Someone from a middle-class background who served royalty. I was intrigued. He was different from the Finches of the world who saw the world in black in white.

In Wolf Hall, we see Cromwell make decision after decision to help King Henry accomplish his goal of removing and eventually imprisoning Anne Boleyn. While I was sympathetic to the doomed queen’s plight, I also understood Cromwell’s choices. From his actions, I learned a few key lessons.

First, I learned the importance of being open to new information—of knowing what you don’t know. Mantel paints Cromwell in sharp contrast to Sir Thomas More, the author of Utopia. More is certain of his beliefs. So certain that he refuses to acknowledge King Henry as head of the Church of England and is sentenced to death as a result.

Cromwell questions More’s approach: “Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little.”

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