The Judge’s House

Law in fiction is a perennial favourite topic of mine. Usually I am drawn to how law and lawyers are treated in fiction. What drew my attention this time was a gem on advocacy in the pages of a novel.

Zadie Smith’s newest novel NW is about four characters that grew up in North West London. One of them is a black woman named Keisha Blake. Against the odds she breaks into law and becomes a successful barrister. En route she drops the name Keisha and takes up Natalie. When she is offered a much sought after prestigious job, she turns it down in favour of a paralegal job at a small legal aid firm with half its stencilled letters peeled off, in a poor area. She later transfers back to a smart commercial job. Those “upstairs” become concerned that she isn’t participating in the group’s social life. An emissary puts her in touch with a distinguished older black female Q.C. They meet for tea and the Q.C. tells the young barrister how when she started appearing before judges she was losing her cases and couldn’t understand why. She discovers her passion was being interpreted by the judge as aggression. “This is his house and you are an interloper within it.” The Q.C. teaches Natalie, “…turn yourself down. One notch. Two.”

While this advice flows from experience with race and gender in the UK, the concepts of the “judge’s house”, “interloper” and “turning yourself down” strike me as broadly applicable considerations to all advocates, anywhere.

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