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The Poetry Man

Vivia Chen

January 28, 2011

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted . . .

                                 "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" by W.H. Auden

Hassett_Yeats_and_the_Muses Today is the anniversary of the death of the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats. It's probably not on the radar of many lawyers--or anyone else, frankly--but it has significance for Joseph Hassett, counsel at Hogan Lovells. More than just an aficionado of the poet, Hassett is a Yeats scholar who recently authored the book W.B. Yeats and the Muse (Oxford University Press), about the nine women who inspired his work.

For four decades, Hassett (pictured below) was a hard-charging litigation partner at Hogan in D.C.; he's tried numerous cases and argued before the Supreme Court. Along the way, he also managed to raise a family and squeeze in a Ph.D. in Anglo-Irish literature from the University of Dublin.

I've always been fascinated by those who manage to straddle the seemingly opposing worlds of law and art. Personally, I can't imagine reconciling the two. In my experience, lawyers tend not to be poetic souls. So I wondered: Has Hassett led a schizoid life? Or has he found a bridge?

Recently, I pressed him on those topics:

Are you a lawyer first, or a Yeats scholar?
I've been a lawyer first and foremost for almost all my life.

Most lawyers play golf. But you picked a difficult poet as your sideline. Why Yeats?
I took a class on Yeats, Eliot, and Frost when I was a student at Canisius, a small Jesuit college in Buffalo. I was one of three students sent to the Yeats Summer School in Ireland. I was 20 and had barely been out of Buffalo. Going to the beautiful countryside, to a place so strongly associated with Yeats, made a strong impression on me.

S5001704-crop2 Shouldn't you be in academia?
I went to [Harvard] law school, started practicing, and always liked it. My mother said, "it's nice to have work to do," and I agree.

Meanwhile, you were doing your Yeats thing on the side. How did you manage?
The firm has a sabbatical program, which I took full advantage of. I had two sabbaticals--one for nine months, one for three--and I did a lot of work at night.

Didn't you feel pulled in two different directions?
I've found there is room for both. My work in poetry is not being a poet; it's analytical and scholarly.

But I can't imagine there are many parallels between Yeats and lawyering.
Yeats was a very aggressive thinker about his life and the world. He said, "Hammer your thoughts into unity." That aspect of Yeats's work is like my trial work.

Really, how so?
In "The Circus Animals' Desertion," Yeats talked about making masterful images by taking elements of everyday life, like "old kettles and old bottles." In preparing for trials, you are also trying to create a structure, a narrative, and masterful images.

You actually sound happy being a lawyer.
Enormously happy. I like puzzles, and trial work is like solving puzzles--a lot like poetry.

That's fascinating. I must say I never found the poetry as a corporate lawyer.
You should try litigation.

Well, it's a bit late for that. Tell me, what do your law firm partners think of your work? Do they know who Yeats is?
Some think Yeats is [John] Keats. But they know I have this poetry thing and go to Ireland a lot.


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Great interview! Always nice to see people who are able to have a functioning and fulfilling "schizoid life".

Who said it, "Inside of every lawyer is the broken heart of a ruined poet?"

Nice piece. But Yeats difficult? Eh?

Incidentally, Yeats's Circus Animals can be entered into even better by looking at the work of his brother (the painter Jack Yeats), who used circus imagery often, especially after the death of his beloved wife.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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