By FRED RODELL
Professor of Law, Yale University
Written in 1939
Fred Rodell archive online
By Walter Olson Few American critics of the legal profession have made as big an impression as Fred Rodell, perhaps best known as the author of Woe Unto You, Lawyers (1939, and reprinted since then) and of the funny and still much-read attack on the stylistic failings of law scholarship, “Goodbye to Law Reviews” (Virginia Law Review, 1936, published when he was just 29). Rodell went on to teach at Yale Law where he was one of the school’s best-liked teachers, noted especially for his course on persuasive legal writing, which trained many leading legal journalists; as Charles Alan Wright notes in his obituary appreciation, Rodell was never admitted to the bar and never practiced law.
Read in its entirety: Woe unto you, lawyers!
Fred Rodell Dies
Fred Rodell, 73, a retired professor of law at Yale University who became known for his scathing attacks on the legal profession and its members, died Wednesday at the Yale-New Haven Hospital after a heart attack.
Considered one of the deans of iconoclasts, he, at the same time, won esteem for his knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and as a civil libertarian.
Mr. Rodell served at Yale from 1933 until his retirement in 1973 because of poor health. He had spent his time quietly since then at his home in Bethany, not far from New Haven.
But his impact remained, mostly through his books and the many articles he produced over the years for various legal and other publications.
The best known of his books were “Woe Unto You Lawyers,” published in 1939, in which he took off on lawyers and the legal language, and “Nine Men,” a political history of the Supreme Court from 1790 to 1955, in which he analyzed court decisions. It was published in 1955.
“He was and is a debunker and an iconoclast, a fellow who liked to sweep away cant and mumbo jumbo and self-importance and pretentiousness, (but) I think a good many of our present-day perceptions reflect pretty much what he was saying more than 40 years ago,” Justice Potter Stewart, a Yale Law School graduate, said recently in an interview for the National Law Journal.
At the time of Mr. Rodell’s retirement, former Justice Abe Fortas, wrote to his former teacher:
“Here’s to Give ’em Hell Fred Rodell. Irresponsible, irreplaceable, irrecusable, irrefragable, irrefutable, irreversible, irrevocable, irremovable and totally irresistable.”
Not everybody felt as kindly toward Mr. Rodell, certainly not one of his favorite targets, Justice Felix Frankfurter, nor the Harvard Law School faculty which he considered open game.
Even the Yale Law School faculty did not escape his jabs. And for that, he and his friends believed, he paid a price.
Most tenured faculty members are named to an endowed faculty chair. Mr. Rodell badly wanted that honor, but he never received it. The late Justice William O. Douglas, who was a friend, once explained it this way:
“He was always true to the nonconformist mold in which he was cast, and some of those prized fringe benefits passed him by because the status quo represents almost every campus.”
Mr. Rodell did not prick, he slashed the pomposity of the legal profession and the gobbledygook of the language its members used. He was brutal when it came to attacking footnotes, which he called “the flaunted Phi Beta Kappa keys of legal writing.'”
There was nothing personal in his reference to that key. He had earned one, himself, at Haverford College. A native of Philadelphia, he graduated from Haverford in 1926. After attending the University of London for a year, he entered Yale Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 1931.
Mr. Rodell was a special legal adviser to Gov. Gifford Pinchot of Pennsylvania for two years before returning to the Yale Law School as an assistant professor.
In the recent interview with the National Law Journal, Mr. Rodell acknowledged that he had not “followed legal stuff for the last five years.. I can’t keep my mind on one thing for very long.”
He said then he took pride in some of his accomplishments, “his legal writing course which had been copied by other law schools, his continued emphasis on plain English, his support for the (Justice) Warren Court,” the Journal reported.
There were other things he had done over the years. He had been a contributing editor to The Progressive and to Scanlan’s Magazine.
He had served on the board of directors of Cooperative consumer’s Inc. in New Haven. He had been a consultant to the Council for Democracy and State Defense Council.
He also had been a member of the Bethany Zoning Board and the Bethany Town Commission.
Mr. Rodell’s first two marriages, to Geraldine Watt and then to Katherine Clay Cowin, ended in divorce. He married the former Janet Learned in 1954.
In addition to his third wife, he is survived by a son, Michael, of his second marriage, of New Canaan, Conn., and two grandchildren..