Thursday, February 01, 2007

Law and Letters Book Event: In The Shadow of The Law

One of the great things about traveling without your laptop (yes, you gasp, yes) is that you are pretty much foced to things printed on actual paper. It really dings your blog/blawg addiction, but you start remembering how great it is to physically read the newspaper, magazines, books. I try to read for fun in spite of law school, but I admit that with the attractions of the internet, even this bibliophile gets lazy.

So it was great to discover that one may enjoy insomnia--I picked up Kim Roosevelt's In the Shadow of the Law right before my trip (along with various maps, handy), and I could hardly put it down. Well, I had to at some points, but I can honestly say, and this is a mark of the book's greatness and not my trip's badness, that there were many moments during my tour of Other Part of the Country when I thought "I'd rather be reading Kermit's book."

So, onto the review: I liked it.

It is an interesting novel, ostensibly about a slightly evil law big corporate law firm, Morgan Siler. But in reading it, I found the main character to be something called "The Law." In that sense, it's kind of Dickensian, in that there is a well-plotted story with excellent exposition and imagery and some very good language, and there are a plethora of interesting characters to follow with interweaving storylines, but ultimately the book is about just one thing. For Dickens, it was usually about the machinery of rapid industrialization transforming the landscape--moral, real--of Victorian England; or the inexorability of poverty and its attendant tragedy; or well, there were a lot of novels, I'll stop here. Even in a classic bildungsroman like David Copperfield or roman a clef like Tale of Two Cities, the "main character" or trope was always a vehicle by which the more fundamental theme was articulated, and this theme so suffused the novel as to be called a character of its own. Oliver Twist isn't just about Oliver, it's about so many boys like Oliver and the historical forces that created a world in which Oliver could exist.

Such is the case with In the Shadow of the Law. You may think you're reading a Grisham-like novel about a firm (okay, I never read it, but I saw the Tom Cruise movie back in the early '90s, before he became really creepy); you may think you're reading about a bunch of lawyers, but really, you're reading about The Law. Or at least how The Law is regarded and shaped by its many characters.

It is strange to say that I fear "spoiling" the novel not by telling you its plot. I mean, I won't of course tell you "what happens," or what happens to its characters (nothing happens to them really, they service the ultimate theme, and so nothing hinges on a particular character's life or death). But it would be spoiling the story to tell you Kim's vision of The Law, and how he articulates this vision through the supplementary characters and story. In many ways, his novel is Victorian in spirit--many of the characters exist merely to serve the larger story, or the main character (what else would explain the existence of Dora in David Copperfield other than to show one part of David's character?). So as I was reading this novel, for the first quarter I was searching for some unifying theme that would tie together the two separate cases and the several lawyers, and so at first it was exasperating to cut back and forth between cases and characters. You learn about the rookie, and then the prodigy, and then the idealist, and then the burn out partner, you jump from the death penalty case to the mass tort case, and you wonder, what the heck are you reading and when is something going to happen, if something is supposed to happen?

Then you realize, ah, this is not about any character, or either case, it's not really even about the firm. It is about The Law, and how each character relates to it (clumsily, pragmatically, or idealistically), and how the firm serves or disserves it (in the latter years, more disservice), and how the prosecutors or public defenders offices are but cogs in its machinery except when they stick an evil wrench in it. What I most enjoyed was Walker Eliot's idealistic, perfectionist vision of The Law, and how completely he believed in it and its ability to lead man to The Truth. Most academics are legal realists, and I am a (way) lapsed critical race deconstructionist, and so it is generally with skepticism that I regard such exalted and objectified visions of The Law. Usually when CLS and CRT say "The Law," it's the same way they say "The Man," with a bit of Marxist edge, and if one fist isn't up in power, then it's holding a hammer, the better to dismantle the "master's house with the master's tools."

But you know, now that I've become a bit more nuanced and less bratty in my progression through ever more graduate degrees (if I had wanted to dismantle this institution it is a wonder I'm still in it, I must be using a meat mallet), the less I am about dismantling and being reactionary in my politics. I still have my skepticism--just not my nihilism. I do believe in the rule of law, and in the power of "The Law." And the more I read the Hart and Sacks' school of thought, the more sympathetic I am to the legal process model. I don't believe that there's some beautifully objective, neutral thing called The Law--but there is more to it than deconstructionists would say. Law is neither inherently evil or good. So it was enjoyable for me to read various visions of The Law as articulated by the characters. Sometimes the law allows man to be self-serving, sometimes it has a higher truth that cannot be circumvented despite man's most evil machinations, but most times it is surprisingly malleable, as the young associates find.

And it's that malleability that makes the novel convincing. The Law is what you make of it. At the end of the day, the young associates Do The Right Thing and in the end The Right Is Done. In a weird way, the novel went from talking about The Law to talking about Equity, like back in the day when there were two separate courts and two different types of remedies and questions. What I remember of equity from my Remedies class: Equity regards as done that which ought to be done.

In the end, certain oughts were achieved: the innocent were exonerated, the guilty will be punished, but I wonder what or who achieved this: The Law, or The Law as shaped and directed by human hands? That is, does man serve The Law, or is The Law but a tool for man to use for ends personal or public, just or unjust? If I take a hammer in my hand to chip away at the pompous marble edifice of The Law, would it be more effective to use The Law itself?

I read legal theory for fun, and find my hobby constantly reinforced by my classes here (I take half hard-core law, half jurisprudence and social policy). I like that for once, it's also reinforced by my fiction reading. The whole time I was reading this novel, I kept running the Hart-Fuller and the Hart-Dworkin debates in my head. Everyone agrees that H.L.A. Hart, the positivist extraordinaire, won both of those debates. I can't make up my mind who wins in Roosevelt's novel, if the theoretical abstractionist perfectionism of Walker can ever make a difference if there is such evil twisting by Morgan Siler and corrupt prosecutors and defenders; if the idealism of young, not-yet-broken lawyers like Katja and Mark can ever make a difference in the long run when evil is so cheap and plentiful and rewarding. Indeed, towards the end, they can't really Do the Right Thing because legal ethics rules about conflict of interest and client privilege would prohibit them from making full disclosures. They can kind of hint for someone else to Do the Right Thing. Like I said, it's that malleabilty (and verisimilitude, to his credit Kim doesn't take extreme liberties the way movies always do in service of plot) that makes the novel convincing. That's life, that's the weirdness of The Law, that Doing the Right Thing is not so easy, and that The Law can stand in the way of itself.

Anyone interested in reading about The Law, lawyers, law firms, legal cases, and legal theory should read this novel.

By the way, if I were to cast this book, because I know it's going to be made into a movie:

Mark Clayton: Topher Grace. Not to be confused with Tobey Maguire, who has already played too many confused young men and is a little too bug-eyed. Watch In Good Company and be convinced of his naturalness for the role.

Katja Phillips: Navi Rawat. You have to watch Numb3rs. She is the coolest smart woman actor in a long while. Approachably alluring but serious. Please, please do not get Katie Holmes, who always plays the same freakin' role of the smart but sultry girl, and she isn't even smart or sultry enough to deserve any of her roles. She was the worst bit of Wonderboys. Don't even go near any starlet that gets herself into In Touch or US Weekly. And no to Natalie Portman. You need someone tough, not ingenue-ish. Is Rena Sofer too old for the role?

Ryan Grady: Oliver Hudson. I've never actually seen anything this guy is in, but he always looks kind of smarmy. May be too good looking though.

Walker Eliot: Jack Davenport. It's funny that I have to go British to find the right combination of smart but bumbling and loserly enough to put taps on shoes. Or I guess David Krumholtz. Okay, yes, I like Numb3rs, which I've blogged about before. I can't really do math well, so I like to watch shows about it, and have a thing for those who can do math and science (so many lawyers are math-fearful and averse it's depressing, especially since you know they'd be in business school if they could hack it). Those who can do math always impress me, since I never even took the Calculus AP exam.

Peter Morgan: Gary Cole. Or a cosmetically aged Aaron Eckhart.

Wallace Finn: Jim Broadbent. Adorable old man. Or Tom Wilkinson.

Howard Fineman: Ron Rifkin.

Enjoy the book, I certainly did.