Paul Goldstein is an expert on intellectual property law and the Stella W. and Ira S. Lillick Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. He is the author of an influential four-volume treatise on U.S. copyright law and a one-volume treatise on international property. He has also authored ten books including five novels. Some of his other works include Copyright’s Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox, a widely acclaimed book on the history and future of copyright, and Intellectual Property: The Tough New Realities That Could Make or Break Your Business. Havana Requiem, his third novel, won the 2013 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.
AM: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. What has been your colleagues’ reaction to this satire?
PG: My colleagues are, by and large, a sturdy and good-natured lot, and most of the reactions I’ve received have been very positive. Several have told me that they actually found themselves laughing out loud while reading the book. Still, there are a couple of colleagues who I know have read the book, but who seem curiously silent, and avoid my glance in the hallways. Who knows what they’re thinking!
AM: Were you afraid your colleagues might push back against the novel, seeing themselves in the characters?
PG: I decided at the outset not to make Legal Asylum a roman a clef—a genre that I find cowardly and mean-spirited, and that I put in the same category as practical jokes. At the same time, there are certainly recognizable types of legal academics in the book, and it’s been a good deal of fun talking with colleagues about which group they put themselves in—Poets, Quants or Bog Dwellers.
AM: In an interview with Jon Malysiak, the director of Ankerwycke Books, you stated that you’d spent 50 years thinking about the absurd and eccentric features of legal education. What are some of these?
PG: One absurdity of course is the grim-faced crusade of law school deans to secure for their institutions a higher and still higher slot in the US News law school rankings, or at least not to slip from their present perch. That’s the question that drives the story: Can a law school make it into the US News Top Five and lose its ABA accreditation, all in the same year? Another absurdity highlighted in Legal Asylum is that, where in other university departments academic advancement, including tenure, turns on publication in peer-reviewed journals, American law schools commit the credentialing function to second-year law students who run the law reviews.
AM: Your book is funny. Why is humor a powerful mode of critique?
PG: I’m glad you found the book funny! As to why humor is such a powerful mode of critique, it is because, for humor to work, it has to surprise the reader. Wait…she said that! He did what! And it’s that surprise, that unexpected twist, that turns the reader’s angle of view a fraction of a degree—or if it’s a belly laugh, maybe a full degree—so that the subject of the lampoon suddenly appears in a different light. To discover, for example, that the emperor is wearing no clothes, is not only funny, but it’s also a powerful critique of a certain kind of political leader.
AM: You’ve called your protagonist, Dean Elspeth Flowers, a hero. Why?
PG: For a literary hero to be at all interesting, she or he needs to be flawed—the deeper the flaw the better—because it is only character defects like pride, willfulness and grandiosity that will get the hero in trouble, and without trouble, what kind of story do you have? Several readers of Legal Asylum have told me how shocked they were to discover that, by the end of the book, they were truly rooting for Elspeth.
AM: Is there anything good about the obsession with law-school rankings and the so-called “arms race” between law schools?
PG: I’m sure there are some beneficiaries of the law school rankings game. The companies that publish all those glossy brochures touting law school achievements to prospective respondents in the US News polls certainly come out ahead. So do the airlines that fly admitted students to the law schools that are recruiting them like prized football prospects. And of course there’s US News itself, for which rankings must be a rare profit center in a bleak economic landscape for news media.
AM: It’s interesting that the American Bar Association doesn’t dodge satire in the book, yet the ABA—or a division of it—published the book.
PG: I have a wonderful and brave editor at Ankerwycke, and he didn’t once bat an eye at the parts of the story that poke fun at the A.B.A accreditation process.
AM: Did you ever consider writing about lower-ranked law schools, or did you, a Stanford law professor, write from the perspective you knew—from a top-ranked law school? I’m thinking now of Charlotte Law School and the troubles it’s been facing in light of the Department of Education’s decision to revoke federal funding there. It seems to me that law professors and administrators at these schools, who are in crisis mode, may not be in the mood for humor about legal education.
PG: My first law teaching job was at a state law school and, although this was long before the rankings game got underway, I can say that, like countless other schools today—state and private—that haven’t made it into the top tiers, it was preparing its students for the practice of law as effectively as any law school in the country. Are there law schools that shouldn’t be in business today? I expect that there are, and that has nothing to do with the US News hierarchy. But other schools have a legitimate grievance against rankings that pretend that their fine-grained hierarchical distinctions convey any useful information.
AM: Why the noun “asylum” in the title of the book? It’s provocative and suggestive.
PG: I like book titles that are at once evocative and descriptive. It’s hard to beat Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, for example. There is of course an asylum for the criminally insane that figures in the plot of Legal Asylum, but the book’s title also aims to evoke the sheltered craziness that passes for legal education at the state law school where the story takes place.
AM: Thanks again for the interview. Any closing comments about how readers can find your work?