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What I Learned About Lawyering From The Great Gatsby

May 16, 2013 Elizabeth Pipkin

[Spoiler Alert: Don’t read this if you don’t want to know how Gatsby ends.]

Lured by the hype surrounding the new “Great Gatsby” film, I decided to listen to the Gatsby audiobook during my commute, if for no other reason than so I could try to converse intelligently with everyone who’s talking about all things Gatsby (try being the operative word). I think I had read the book before, though I can’t really remember. In any event, it would be trite for me to say it was a great work and I’m not qualified to say that, so I won’t. 

What I will say is that I fell in love with Nick Carraway, the narrator of Gatsby. Don’t get too excited. We’re not talking romantic love here; we’re talking lawyer love. Lawyer love is where one lawyer respects the work of another. It’s that moment where you recognize a job well done by a member of your craft. I don’t know if Nick Carraway ever became a lawyer, and it doesn’t really matter. I do know that when it comes to conducting investigations, the basic building blocks of a lawyer’s case, Nick shows us how it’s done.

Nick searches throughout the novel to understand Gatsby’s true identity and motivation. As readers, we are with Nick every step of the way trying to figure Gatsby out. This type of inquiry is exactly what lawyers do when we investigate our cases. Without investigation, we don’t know the facts.  Without the facts, we can’t win cases. Nick isn’t trying to win a case, but when we finish the novel, he has nailed the facts. We know exactly who Gatsby is and why he did what he did. 

Given it’s the 1920s, Nick goes about his investigation the old-fashioned way. There are no social networking sites or online public records. Nick gets down to basics and talks to people. He has several conversations with Gatsby and builds a relationship of trust, which leads Gatsby to admit his true past. Nick does the same with Jordan Baker, who takes him into her confidence and tells him the history of Gatsby’s and Daisy’s relationship, thus explaining Gatsby’s real motives for living in West Egg. 

Nick also observes the unsaid – body language, social cues and mannerisms. In several scenes, Tom and Daisy don’t say much to each other, but Nick learns a lot about their relationship by the way they act around each other. The final time we see Tom and Daisy, Nick can’t hear their conversation at all, but he can tell by observing them that Daisy’s decided to go with Tom, not Gatsby. 

Most important, and this is where I fall in love, Nick applies good judgment to the facts. He weighs the credibility of the various witnesses.  Nick figures out what is a lie and what is the truth. He sees where true harm was done and where it was not. Although several characters express opinions about Gatsby, Nick is the only one who puts all the facts together to understand his life and death.  Nick’s judgment of the facts leads him to compassion for Gatsby in his death, despite his many deceptions and conceits. 

As lawyers, we are borne back ceaselessly into the past (Fitzgerald’s words) as we uncover the facts of our cases. Nick Carraway shows us how to learn the facts, and most significantly, how to use them.