Sunday, August 13, 2006

Roosevelt's Law

Most legal thrillers use the idea of the law firm – large and greedy or small and courageous – simply as the backdrop for the cases won and lost by their lawyers. That’s why Kermit Roosevelt’s thoroughly gripping debut novel is such a major breakthrough: it makes the firm itself – the giant Washington, D.C. operation Morgan Siler -- the book’s most important character.

“Pro bono was the perfect solution: cases on which summer associates could take positions of significant responsibility without any worry that their incompetence would cause problems for the firm,” says Roosevelt about the best way to keep law students happy. “Furthermore, it gave them an unrealistic idea both of the sort of work they’d be doing and of the firm’s commitment to pro bono practice, something law students seemed to value.”

That quote says more about the idea of pro bono than the lengthy and self-defeating gyrations which first year associate Mark Clayton goes through as he works on a death penalty case in Virginia. And what another new associate, Katja Phillips, discovers about litigation (that it “consisted of trying to prevent people from enforcing the legal rights they claimed”) is never really improved or made more real during the hundreds of billable hours she spends when victims of a chemical plant explosion in Texas (owned by a Morgan Siler client) join in a class action against the offending company.

It’s not that Mark, Katja and all their immediate legal superiors are anything less than fully-fleshed characters: a shrewd and cocksure third-year associate who clerked for a Supreme Court justice (as Roosevelt himself did) is particularly well-drawn. But in the end, it’s Morgan Siler, standing like a warehouse of broken legal promises on K Street, which constantly holds our interest.