“I’m not telling you what you need to know to be my lawyer. I’m telling you what you need to know to be my friend. If a lawyer was all I wanted, I reckon I wouldn’t have to hire a friend.”

Burley Coulter in Wendell Berry’s “The Wild Birds”

What makes for an interesting lawyer story? The long and distinguished canon of fictional lawyers—literature, film, and television—mostly exists in a courtroom or in the work leading up to a trial. When you name your favorite fictional lawyer, be it Atticus Finch, Jake Brigance, Vinny Gambini, or Elle Woods, odds are that you choose a trial lawyer. This is understandable. As a lawyer whose art mostly takes place at a desk, I get it. It is simply more interesting to watch Ben Matlock argue his client’s innocence, armed with trusty gray suit and Ford Crown Victoria, than it is to watch me draft an LLC’s certificate of formation or prepare the chain of title on a farm.

My favorite fictional lawyer was successful in the courtroom, but one of his most difficult and dramatic cases gets handled entirely in his office, during an estate planning meeting with a client.

Wheeler Catlett is a lawyer and a farmer. He loves the law, and he loves the land. Catlett is a core character in Wendell Berry’s fictional community of Port William, Kentucky. Berry’s fiction, consisting of eight full-length novels and almost sixty short stories, centers around Port William, a fictionalized version of Berry’s real-life home of Port Royal, where Berry’s family has lived and farmed for over seven generations. Berry is renowned for sixty years of agrarian writings that have influenced farmers, public servants, religious leaders, and activists of all stripes. His fictional universe is an intricate web of families and their relationships with one another, with the land, and with their complicated generational legacies. The Port William stories are hardly an idealistic work of nostalgia. The residents are flawed, realistic people. There are drunks and ne’er-do-wells, good farmers and bad.

Experienced Berry readers know that Wheeler Catlett is based on Berry’s own father, John Marshall Berry. Catlett, like the elder Berry, is well-regarded in both of his vocations. Catlett has two sons, a writer (Andy) and a lawyer (Henry), paralleling the lives of Wendell and his lawyer brother John M. Berry, Jr. Port William and Port Royal are each too small to sustain a law office (even at the peak of rural populations), so fictional Catlett and real-life Berry have an office on the courthouse square in the nearby county seat of Henry County, Hargrave in fiction and New Castle in real life.

Throughout Berry’s fictional universe, Wheeler Catlett is a trusted friend and capable lawyer to many within the Port William community (known as the “membership”). Catlett takes those roles seriously. He enjoys being a “country lawyer,” both for the positive connotations through which he views his life and for the manner in which he is underestimated in courtrooms by the big city lawyers from Lexington and Louisville.

The short story called “The Wild Birds” focuses on Wheeler Catlett in a scene that is very familiar to lawyers of his ilk and mine. An aging farmer has decided to draw up his will. Now, as a prudent lawyer and a friend of many farmers, I must interject and counsel my farmer friends to prepare a will before they reach the age of the client in this short story. The aging farmer is Burley Coulter, one of Port William’s most beloved characters. Burley is a brilliant hunter and a caring farmer who never lets tomorrow’s work get in the way of having a good time tonight. Burley’s meeting with his lawyer is expected to be fairly routine, but there’s something else here: Burley has fathered a child.

Danny Branch is a hard-working and well-respected farmer who was raised by a single mother, Kate Helen Branch. Burley is Danny’s father. Over the years, Burley financially supported Kate Helen, her mother, and Danny. Burley has been a positive male role model to Danny, but in the form of an uncle more than a father. Burley is now deeply bothered by his failure to acknowledge his child. The aging man is considering his inevitable passing and the future settlement of his estate. He is now at a legal and moral crossroads. If Burley does nothing, then the laws of intestacy will pass the Coulter farm to his nephew Nathan Coulter. Nathan is the son of Burley’s brother Jarrat, and Nathan’s brother Tom was killed in World War II, so Nathan is the only living member of the next generation of Coulters, at least according to the official records. Nathan is a fine farmer and well-regarded among the Port William membership, but Burley doesn’t want to pass the land on to him. Burley wants to leave the Coulter family farm to his unacknowledged son, Danny Branch. As if to emphasize the point, Burley is accompanied to this estate planning meeting by Nathan and his wife Hannah. Much to Wheeler’s chagrin, Nathan and Hannah adamantly support Burley’s wishes.

So begins a lengthy meeting between client Burley Coulter and lawyer Wheeler Catlett. The conversation is part recollection of Burley’s life and part interrogation of a client by an apoplectic lawyer. Wheeler Catlett is a mild-mannered man and a friend of Burley, but Wheeler is deeply bothered by Burley’s decision to leave the farm to anyone outside Burley’s publicly known family lineage. Danny may well be Burley’s blood kin (and Wheeler questions Burley as to the certainty of this fact), but that kinship is known to few people and Danny does not carry the Coulter name. Burley wants Wheeler to draw up his will, but he also wants Wheeler to understand his decision. Wheeler struggles to understand.

This essay opened with a quote in which Burley told Wheeler that he hired a friend as well as a lawyer. In that quote, Wendell Berry sets forth the nature of professional relationships within a small town. This perspective is undoubtedly informed by the experiences of the lawyers in Berry’s family. Wheeler Catlett was not the only lawyer in Hargrave. Burley could have hired someone else to prepare his will. Had he done so, it is entirely possible that the lawyer would have dutifully typed up the request with only a minimal number of questions. Those lawyers likely would not have vehemently argued with their client, as does Wheeler Catlett. That’s not what Burley Coulter wanted, though. This was a momentous decision in Burley’s life and for the Coulter family lineage. Wheeler Catlett was the only lawyer whose life was rooted in the Port William membership. This task could have been done by any lawyer, but it needed to be done by Wheeler Catlett.

The underlying reality of Wendell Berry’s Port William fiction is the communal membership. Each character is influenced by other characters and their decisions, and by the community at large, whether they know it or not and whether they like it or not. This theme is a hallmark of Berry’s writing. Decisions, big and small, are not made within the abstract. Those decisions, whether by individuals on the farm or policymakers in the halls of power, have very real and wide-ranging consequences on the lives of very real people. One of Berry’s most famous lines about the idea of community comes from this short story and this very estate planning meeting, as Burley Coulter talks about the consequences of his decisions on other people:

The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.

Some critics view Berry as a nostalgist and a Luddite. I’m not here to debate that point, though I can and do so elsewhere in my writing. But when Berry illustrates the relationship between country lawyer and client, it resonates with me. It should resonate with any lawyer who lives amongst his clients and whose roster of clients and friends is a substantially overlapping Venn diagram. We are not merely document-preparing drones. We do not mindlessly complete the blanks on a form and deliver the completed form into the ether. Our decisions and advice come with very real consequences. We affect people and families whom we know and love. We have larger effects on the community and its fate. We often know who is struggling personally or in business. We sit in church pews with people whose secrets that we know and which we are obligated to keep, both by the ethics of our profession and by our own morality. We help friends start and close their small businesses. We probate the wills of deceased persons that we loved deeply and knew our entire lives. We execute the sobering sale of farmland. We assist in the joyous purchase of homes and farms.

Burley Coulter needed a lawyer to prepare his will, but he also needed a friend who understood his life to help him talk through a lifetime of decisions and the legal decision that was at hand. Wheeler Catlett helped Burley Coulter leave an important legacy, even as Wheeler struggled to agree with his client’s wishes. Neither Wheeler Catlett nor his real-life inspiration John Marshall Berry practiced in the 21st century, but for those of us in the profession who do, their example remains powerful and timeless. We live within a membership of community. Our obligations as lawyers are inextricable from that membership. May we counsel our clients accordingly.

Image credit: Edward Lamson Henry, “A Country Lawyer

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  1. Sent this to a lawyer friend a couple days ago and he loved it. Said it came at the perfect time, as he is in the middle of some changes in his practice which will involve more direct work in wills and estate planning, etc.

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