Hamilton: Inspiration for trial lawyers from a Broadway musical

“Rise Up” is pretty good advice for trial lawyers

Stuart Zanville
2016 January

The hottest show on Broadway is the musical, Hamilton. The brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the book, music and lyrics and stars as the show’s main character, Alexander Hamilton.

It opened to rave reviews last year and has played to sellout audiences ever since. It’s been called “revolutionary” and “transformational.”

Hamilton is also a show about trial lawyers. In fact, nearly all of the show’s main characters are on the short list of America’s first trial lawyers. Besides being a sensational theatrical experience that uses rap and hip hop and contemporary language to give a compelling history lesson, Hamilton contains messages and inspiration for every trial lawyer.

The show’s two protagonists are Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It’s their story. These are familiar names, but be honest; none of us really knows that much about them. Our knowledge of Alexander Hamilton is pretty much limited to the fact that he died in a duel and his face is on the ten dollar bill. We know even less about Aaron Burr, other than that he was the guy that killed Hamilton in that infamous duel.

I admit, until I saw the musical and listened to the cast recording, the total sum of my knowledge of Hamilton and Burr was contained in those two paragraphs.

I have since learned more, much more. I now can tell readers of this column that one of the two personifies all of the best traits of a great trial lawyer, and the other’s character would not be emulated by a successful trial lawyer.

In a nutshell, Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant orphan who came to America with nothing and became one of the most important figures in American history. He was a Revolutionary War hero, second-in-command to George Washington, pioneer trial lawyer, creator of our financial system, founder of the Coast Guard and one of the most prolific writers of his time. He was also hot-headed, strong-willed, opinionated, passionate and, in a good way if you agreed with him, full of himself.

Aaron Burr’s accomplishments are less known. He was a contemporary of Hamilton and their paths crossed often. He was born privileged, the son of a noted theologian and Princeton College President and his ancestors were among the Puritan settlers of New England. He was also passive, restrained, and dispassionate and advocated not taking positions, not having strong principles or beliefs.

Burr was an accomplished trial lawyer who became an influential politician in the early days of the country. He was a U.S. Senator from New York and ran for President in 1800 against Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. He lost to Jefferson in what has been called America’s first presidential campaign.

In case you haven’t figured it out, Hamilton is the one with the traits all successful trial lawyers should have, and Burr is just the opposite. Just like today’s trial lawyers, Hamilton cries out that you must take a stand, Burr says “don’t.” Here are words from the musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda that explain why trial lawyers should recognize Alexander Hamilton as their inspiration.

The truth in music

In the beginning of the musical, Hamilton meets Burr and is given this suggestion:

While we’re talking, let me offer you some free advice. Talk less. Smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.

Hamilton responds:

You can’t be serious.

I am not throwing away my shot!

I’m just like my country, I’m young scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.

Oh, am I talkin’ too loud? Sometimes I get over excited, shoot off at the mouth. I never had a group of friends before, I promise that I’ll make y’all proud.

Throughout the play, it becomes clear that Hamilton stood for what he believed and Burr didn’t. At the end we learn even more about the differences between Hamilton and Burr when Hamilton writes to Burr:

I am not the reason no one trusts you.No one knows what you believe.
I will not equivocate on my opinion. I have always worn it on my sleeve.

Hey, I have not been shy. I am just a guy in the public eye. Tryin’ to do my best for our republic. I don’t wanna fight, but I won’t apologize for doing what’s right.

Hamilton’s last words in the play are exactly why he represents everything trial lawyers believe in:

America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me. You let me make a difference. A place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up.

As we begin a New Year, “Rise Up” is pretty good advice for trial lawyers from a Broadway musical telling the untold story of a Founding Father.

Stuart Zanville Stuart Zanville

Stuart Zanville is the Executive Director of the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles (CAALA). Contact him at (213) 487-1212 or by e-mail: stuart@caala.org.

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