Does law school breed tiny monsters? You bet it does. Each year, another group of bright-eyed innocents enters law school, their brains filled with nothing but song lyrics, sports statistics, and perhaps a bit of Nietzche. This is scary enough, but law school transforms them into something even more perverse. After just three years, these young law students are now ambitious and ruthless baby lawyers. They can quote black-letter law, distinguish between the writing styles of "Posner" and "Scalia," and place bets on which editor of their law journal will be the next Supreme Court justice. Not only is the world theirs for the taking, they think, but so are the highest reaches of government. All they have to do is get a well-paying starter job and then wait for the earlier generations of monstrous law-school graduates to do them the favor of dying.
Exaggerated? Hardly. I myself am a textbook example of this phenomenon. In 1990, bloated with self-importance, I graduated from law school and assumed my rightful place in our nation’s democracy as a “BigLaw associate.” If had been a character in a novel, perhaps one written by David Lat, the reader would have been willing to wait a great many pages for the world to finally deliver a well-deserved smack in my face. That smack would persuade me, once and for all, that I was just an ordinary person.
In David Lat’s first novel, the fun and entertaining Supreme Ambitions, the monstrous baby lawyer who eventually gets her comeuppance is the first-person narrator Audrey Coyne, a graduate of Yale Law School. As a first-person narrator, Audrey is unreliable only in that she doesn’t fully know herself. The genre of Lat's novel most closely resembles chick lit. (Male writers, if you didn't know, aren't excluded from the genre.) Lat's novel is a fast read. With generous doses of dialogue, Audrey recounts her tale in a linear manner, chapter by chapter, beginning to end. In addition to the main action, diversionary asides include Audrey’s flirtations with co-workers, both male and female; the ins-and-outs of her job as a federal appellate clerk; and plenty of observations about fashion.
When the book begins, Audrey doesn’t view herself at monstrous. Thus she sees no need to hide her over-sized (“supreme”) ambitions. Audrey's first ambition is to clerk for a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals named Christina Wong Stinson. Her second ambition is to move up from there. Audrey tells her mother—
“[I]f I get this clerkship and impress Judge Stinson, she could recommend me for a clerkship with a Supreme Court justice. And Supreme Court clerks, when they leave the Court and go to law firms, get huge signing bonuses—as high as $300,000. On top of a base salary of about $200,000.”
For Audrey, a federal appellate clerkship isn’t just about the money. What really attracts her is the prestige. This major theme is introduced on the book’s second page—
I did not feel like explaining to my mother, a nurses’ aide whose interaction with lawyers was mercifully limited, the complex process by which the legal profession generates, fetishizes, and monetizes prestige.
Whether or not the legal profession does indeed fetishize prestige, Audrey certainly does. Walking down a hallway to her job interview with Judge Stinson, Audrey notes the way “[t]okens of power and prestige adorned the walls.” As Audrey begins to catalog the judge’s citations and photographs, the reader might begin to wonder if Audrey is not only an overeager enthusiast of all-things-judicial, but hopelessly naive. This, I think, is Lat’s intention. By the time Audrey reaches the end of the hall and catalogs the last item, you have to laugh: “[A]nd, most impressive of all, a photograph of Judge Stinson and her husband with President George W. Bush.” Doesn't Audrey realize how many complete nobodies have a photo with a president hanging on their walls?
For Audrey, who has learned everything she knows about prestige in law school, Judge Stinson of the Ninth Circuit is a ready-made mentor. During the job interview, Judge Stinson is revealed to be a prestige-fetishest herself—
“Are you planning to apply for Supreme Court clerkships?”
I was expecting this question, based on the clerkship write-ups of former Stinson clerks.
“Yes, Judge,” I said. “It is a dream of mine to clerk for a justice of the Supreme Court.”
“Excellent. I encourage—strongly encourage—all of my law clerks to apply to the Court. It reflects well on me as a judge to send my clerks on to the Court. And I like to be thought well of. I like to be a judge who’s going places.”
“You have a lifetime appointment to a federal appeals court! That’s pretty great, you know! Who else do you have to impress? Where else is there to go?” ….
“Audrey,” Judge Stinson said, shaking her head and sighing. “There is always somewhere to go. Always.”
In the ensuing chapters, both Judge Stinson’s world view, and Audrey herself, are put to the test. After Audrey gets the job—feeling a "special connection," Judge Stinson hires her on the spot—we get some interesting chapters about Audrey’s work as a judicial clerk. I believe it's these chapters, in addition to the lore that Audrey imparts about the role and function of appellate judicial clerks in the federal system, that has led Lat to call his novel “realistic.” Audrey meets her fellow clerks; the reader gets a sense of her typical work week; the clerks discuss the other judges and their management styles. In one of Audrey’s few interactions with anyone who doesn’t work at the federal court (federal law clerks, apparently, work nearly around the clock), Audrey meets a neighbor, Harvetta Chambers. Harvetta is an African-American woman who is a law-policy junkie but clerks in the far-less-prestigious state-court system. A minor character who deserves her own book, Harvetta serves as a foil who views ambition and prestige very differently than Audrey does, and so has some things to teach her.
The plot machinations truly get underway when Audrey begins to work more closely with Judge Stinson. When the presidential elections turn out in a way that make Judge Stinson’s ambitions for a Supreme Court nomination more likely, the judge leans even more heavily on her staff, explaining to Audrey, “To be a successful professional woman, you need to be a little monstrous”—
"To get where I am today, I had to spend years being tough, strident, and manipulative. That kind of behavior is ingrained in me. It's not something that I can just unlearn—and, to be honest, I'm not sure that I'd want to unlearn it. It's part of who I am, for better or worse."
Audrey is someone who “love[s] the approval of authority figures." She knows she'll get plenty of approval from Judge Stinson—just as long as she is willing to do the judge's bidding. Only when Judge Stinson asks Audrey to do some truly monstrous things herself does her confidence in her boss begin to waver. But Audrey carries on, less troubled by Stinson’s power plays than by a growing sense that Stinson is less than a towering judicial thinker. When Audrey asks her about her reliance on her clerks to write her opinions, she responds, “Legal analysis is for little people.” With the exception of the judge's "extensive collection of Armani, Chanel, and St. John outfits," could it be that the empress has no clothes?
If the reader isn’t sure, Lat hints at the answer in other ways. In the job-interview scene quoted above, Lat employs some imagery to suggest that Justice Stinson is, metaphorically, something akin to a witch. Later, Audrey describes her impressions of the courthouse, without irony: “Marveling at the marble, I thought to myself: this is a temple to the law, my boss is one of the law’s high priestesses, and I am one of her acolytes.” Still later, in one of the novel’s crucial scenes, Judge Stinson and Audrey find themselves on the roof of the courthouse, where they “could see for miles.” It is on this mountaintop of a courthouse that Judge Stinson secures Audrey’s promise to keep a dark secret with a bribe, promising Audrey “All this can be yours, as long as you remain loyal to me.” The scene concludes:
I nodded but otherwise said nothing. All I had to do was say nothing, and victory would be mine.
“Let’s head back downstairs,” the judge said. “We have an opinion to issue. And a world to conquer.”
Not only is Judge Stinson monstrous, Lat is suggesting, but she's even a little satanic. Although a reader doesn’t need to recognize the biblical parallels and other imagery, these touches demonstrates that Lat cares about the writer’s craft. This doesn't mean that Lat's writing is difficult. It's not. Lat has written Supreme Ambitions for a general reader, thereby demonstrating a supreme ambition himself—the supreme ambition to write a bestseller. (Does it bother you that while the judges and the U.S. president in the novel are fictitious, Audrey, standing in for Lat, finds a way to name-check tons of real-life blogs and at least thirteen supreme-court journalists? It doesn't bother me—it's how novels are marketed in the Internet age.)
But there's a roadblock to Lat's ambitions: could the plot of Supreme Ambitions be too lawyer-centric for a general reader? While it’s true that some of the plot turns on dry issues of procedural law, I think this only makes the book more fun. The novel is set inside a federal appellate courthouse, after all. In such a staid setting, how could Lat have shoehorned in a murder, a car chase, or a third world war? Instead, Lat shoehorns in a flawed notice of appeal. In my opinion, that counts as wit. While there will always be lawyers-turned-critics who think that words like “jurisdiction” are impossible to comprehend without a legal degree, I'm not buying it.
I don’t mean to say, however, that Lat's novel is realistic, despite his claims to the contrary. The only extended passages that are rendered realistically are the details of Audrey’s job as a federal appellate clerk, reason enough for a great number of judicial voyeurs—college and law students, young lawyers, other curious professionals—to pick up and become interested in the book. But even if classified as "chick lit," Supreme Ambitions is also partly a legal thriller. It is in the service of keeping things thrilling that all of the really unrealistic things happen: a few too many coincidences of timing, a few too many characters whose paths just happen to intertwine, a few too many convenient deaths, that sort of thing.
But these aren’t flaws. Writing commercial fiction, Lat’s overriding goal is to entertain, and the occasional heavy-handed plotting doesn't detract from the entertainment. To Lat’s credit, he has created an interesting character in his first-person narrator, Audrey, whose voice is compelling enough to carry to book. And it’s easy to root for her too.
So what's the bottom line? One commentator, Will Baude, concluded his brief review of Supreme Ambitions like this: “I still can’t decide whether this is a ridiculous book or an insightful one. It might be both.” In Baude’s hesitation lies a clue to Lat's work. From the literary snob’s point of view, of course Supreme Ambitions is ridiculous; this would be true of almost any work of commercial fiction. But the snobs shouldn't have a voice in the debate, and the charge of ridiculous doesn’t hold up.
Is Lat’s book insightful? Again, by the standards of commercial fiction, sure it is. By the time the plot has almost played out, and Audrey has apologized to all those she’s hurt for the “monstrous” things she’s done both on Judge Stinson’s behalf and to advance her own career, she realizes that it’s time to “come to terms with [her] own ordinariness." That’s right: by the end of the book, the world has finally delivered that smack in the face that all law-school graduates eventually have coming to them. "We can't all become part of history," Audrey says. "[W]e can't all become stars." That’s insightful enough for me.
While the best audience for this book isn’t wizened, graying lawyers, who have learned the book’s lessons long ago (and who probably don’t care about the day-to-day particulars of the job of a federal clerk), there is a broad audience of general readers for Supreme Ambitions, which deserves to be widely read.
2. "Law Professor Writes Novel About Lawyers," a review of Kermit Roosevelt's In the Shadow of the Law;
3. "Anonymous Lawyer: A Novel Coming Soon," including thoughts prior to the publication of Jeremy Blachman's Anonymous Lawyer;