No, not Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird.
Our choice for the top literary lawyer of all-time technically isn’t even a lawyer. Nor is she a man, a requirement for the practice of law in William Shakespeare’s day. We’re talking about Portia from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice.
The Merchant of Venice, one of Shakespeare’s earlier works, is often criticized for its stereotypical portrayal of the Jewish moneylender, Shylock. But the work also gives us Portia, one of the Bard’s most admirable and complex characters and the epitome of what makes a great lawyer. Aside from her obvious compassion, street smarts and gift of gab, Portia reads the fine print and uses her head. And in the end, justice is served.
In the play, Shylock has agreed to lend Portia’s husband, Bassanio, a large sum of money. Bassanio’s best friend, Antonio, has stood as guarantor for the loan. However, instead of charging Antonio interest, Shylock requires Antonio to promise – in writing — that if the money isn’t repaid on time, Shylock can take one pound of Antonio’s flesh.
When Bassanio and Antonio fail to pay on time, Shylock takes them to trial before the Duke of Venice. But the Duke has sent for a legal expert – in reality, Portia disguised as a man. In a famous monologue, Portia asks Shylock to show mercy, saying:
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…
But despite Portia’s eloquent words (and a generous settlement offer), Shylock insists on his pound of flesh.
Portia reviews the contract and agrees that it is legally binding. However, she notes, the contract does not entitle Shylock to any of Antonio’s blood. So Shylock must take his pound of flesh without causing Antonio to bleed.
Recognizing defeat, Shylock changes his mind and agrees to accept the cash. But Portia tells him the offer is off the table. Shylock must take what is legally due or nothing at all. She then adds that Shylock is guilty of conspiring against the life of a Venetian citizen, the penalty for which is death as well as forfeiture of half of his property to the state and the other half to Antonio.
In the end, the Duke – inspired by Portia’s speech on mercy – spares Shylock’s life. And Antonio agrees that Shylock can keep his wealth on condition that he leave his estate to his estranged daughter.
Portia shows us that being a great lawyer isn’t about conforming to preconceived stereotypes. Nor is it about revenge. She shows us that justice requires both intelligence and compassion.
We hope you’ll never find yourself in Antonio’s position with your actual life and life savings on the line. But if you do, we are here to fight for you with hard work, smarts and compassion – just like Portia did for Antonio.