LAW PROFESSOR WRITES NOVEL ABOUT LAWYERS . . . The reviewers called In the Shadow of the Law a legal thriller, but it's really just a novel about lawyers, especially big-firm lawyers. It's the first novel by Kermit Roosevelt, who has quite a resume: graduate of Yale Law, Supreme Court clerk, now a professor at Penn Law. Maybe it's no surprise that he didn't aspire to be John Grisham. Rather than emphasizing plot in his novel, Roosevelt emphasized character. And he presents a bunch of them too, mostly lawyers at Morgan Siler, a fictional defense firm headquartered in Washington, D.C.
In the Shadow of the Law is the sort of book I enjoyed a lot as a law student. It's a fairly accurate depiction of the way some big-firm lawyers work and think, right down to the black-and-white way some of them view plaintiff's lawyers as vulture-like wretches. But the defense lawyers come in for some criticism too. I liked the way one character described how former Supreme Court clerks aren't suited for large firms:
They don't have a very good grasp of the nature of legal practice, to be frank. Give them a research question and they come back with a new theory of constitutional law. Like that's going to impress a state court judge. And they're too fucking smart, never spend enough time on anything. Associates like that make the client unhappy with everyone else--he wants to know why this brief is costing him three times what the bright boy did the last one for. Smart, efficient people aren't meant for law firms; they just make the rest of us look bad.
According to the book's author bio, Roosevelt worked at firms in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Given that Roosevelt was a Supreme Court clerk himself, it's possible the quoted lines are payback for some personal slight. But who knows? The thing about fiction is that unless the author tells you otherwise, you generally can't guess what's autobiographical and what's not. That's why it's also hard to tell whether the two stories Roosevelt relates in the novel's forward narrative--one about a pro bono death-penalty case, the other about a class action arising from an industrial accident--are based on Roosevelt's real-life experiences. I'd guess probably not, since neither struck me as particularly realistic. As Roosevelt put it himself in the acknowledgements, "I have also attempted to keep the law accurate, though when it collided with the necessities of fiction, it gave way."
Not that this matters very much. As I said, you wouldn't want to buy In the Shadow of the Law for its plot, which makes up only a small part of the book, as strange as that sounds. Instead, it should be purchased for its characters, especially if you're the sort who wants to know more about what lawyers do in large law firms.
As for me, I already knew about lawyers in large firms, having worked in one for many years. It means I probably wasn't the novel's most sympathetic reader. Even so, I'm looking forwards to Roosevelt's next novel. As I've disclosed in this website's disclaimer, I tend to admire all lawyer-novelists, whether they write literary or commercial fiction. You'll rarely read a review by me that isn't colored by this bias, including this one.
UPDATE 8/17/06: In the Shadow of the Law was the topic yesterday of the first Conglomerate Book Club, which led me to some interesting comments by Kermit Roosevelt about his writing process at Is That Legal?