Monday, August 13, 2007

In the Shadow of the Law by Kermit Roosevelt

At first blush, this book might be thought to be similar to a Grisham novel, but the author has some serious credibility. Take his name: Theodore Roosevelt had a son called Kermit, who also had a son called Kermit. Then there's the fact that the author is a law professor at U Penn, after working for a law firm and clerking for a Supreme Court Associate Justice. He's written what might be called a law procedural, in that there is much detail of the actual practice of law, and the demands it places upon practitioners: so squeezed are they of humanity that one despairs of their ever being any room for justice within the legal system. Sure, we'll see some of the young associates doing the right thing, but can they last? I doubt it. Life inside this firm is more than a little disturbing for its complete lack of values. Sorry, there is one thing valued: all the workers are valued according to the numbers on their time sheet.

The firm in question is an elite Washington one, Morgan Siler. Those who want to make it have to devote their life to it. So when one of the partners dies towards the end of the novel, the only people who go to his funeral are those from his firm. His colleagues know or care so little about him that they give him a Christian funeral, despite the fact he's a Jew. Senior partner Peter Morgan is as cold-blooded as a deep frozen shark: he manipulates the partnership to have his own father ousted and then, when he wakes up one day and decides he has no further use for a wife, simply changes the locks and doesn't have the grace to mention it to her. She is aware that he has been sucked dry by the profession, and thinks it a kindness not to try to make him see what he's missed out on.

Two cases dominate the narrative: there is a pro bono defence of a death row inmate which has fallen into the hands of one of the newest associates, Mark. He is supposedly being supervised by someone with a little more experience, Walker. He had initially struck me as a decent sort of guy, the account of his time as a Supreme Court clerk were absorbing, but when he is called on to do some actual work, is too busy polishing the article which is his escape route to academia. So Mark is left to fend for himself, with occasional support from the mysterious paralegal who has far more skills than he ought. I did like the portrayal of the way Mark stumbled through this case, completely out of his depth, but trying anyway.

The other case sees Morgan Siler in more familiar territory: there has been an explosion in one of their industrial clients, which saw several people killed. They're not only defending it, but using smart legal techniques to make the client judgment proof even if it is found to be liable. Somehow Mark has time to be involved in this case as well, along with Katja: somehow they even find the time to communicate with each other on a human level, and find something of value and interest in each other. Then there is poor old Ryan: he decides that to make his way at the firm, he has to wander the corridors of power, so everyone knows his face. He has the time sheet beat: he simply fudges the numbers. But it doesn't last: he has a form of revelation towards the end - he's found that men's magazines are no help in generating useful approaches to picking up women, so turns to reading the women's magazines. While he can see it gives him an edge in the pick up scene, he's surprised to find that it puts him off the game completely:
Knowing your enemy may help you in the struggle, but it may sap your will to fight too. For you may come to discover that your terrible enemy isn't so terrible after all; that in fact she's confused, insecure, human like you.
It is a bit of a random blow at the media, the thought that they conspire to put men and women at each others throats when the reality is we're all more or less on the same side, but once Ryan sees that particular light, he doesn't really have the stomach for Morgan Stiler any more.



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