In the Shadow of the Law
Reading Kermit Roosevelt's IN THE SHADOW OF THE LAW, one is reminded of the admonition that judges give juries in American courtrooms: "Keep an open mind, do not come to any conclusions in the case until you have heard all of the evidence that will be presented." This highly publicized and well-reviewed maiden novel by law school professor Roosevelt drags somewhat in its middle portions, but it makes a sufficiently strong recovery in its concluding pages to warrant a recommendation for those readers who favor the style of legal fiction followed by authors such as Scott Turow.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE LAW takes the reader behind the scenes of a fictional powerhouse Washington D.C. law firm. Morgan Siler, the firm in question, has all the attributes that one expects of a major K Street law firm in our nation's capital. Patrician partners cultivate corporate clients willing to pay enormous fees. Young associates are ground into hourly billing robots whose sole mission as lawyers is to find a way to bill 25 hours in a 24-hour day. Along the way the associates worry about whether they will become partners in order to do to the next wave of associates what has been done to them. The work is difficult, the days are long and the only thing missing from the equation is an important word: justice.
Roosevelt, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, writes on a subject in which he is well-versed. He served as a law clerk to a Supreme Court Justice, as does one of his major characters, and later worked at major law firms in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. One envisions the author gleefully sitting at his word processor, thinking of past acquaintances that he portrays in his novel as ruthless, greedy and heartless individuals totally wrapped up in their own selfish endeavors to live a life of wealth and power. Many former acquaintances of Professor Roosevelt undoubtedly will speculate on the real-life identities of his fictional characters.
The novel focuses on two important cases handled by Morgan Siler and the partners and associates assigned to that litigation. In addition, readers will meet senior partner Peter Morgan, a legacy of the firm's founding partner. Every negative stereotype that one can conjure up about an attorney has been rolled into Peter Morgan. Not only is he a cold-hearted evil lawyer, in the end he turns out to be a disgusting human being. So many malevolent characters dominate IN THE SHADOW OF THE LAW that the reader searches in vain for one attorney to admire. In 368 pages, no such individual can be found.
In a class action lawsuit brought against a chemical company for an explosion at one of their plants, the reader learns how scorched earth litigation can be used to bring the wheels of justice to an abrupt halt. The partners and associates from Morgan Siler have several goals in defending this action. They seek to delay or deny the production of crucial evidence and take whatever steps can be taken to fight a war of attrition against the lawyers seeking recovery. Such action of course requires the billing of substantial hours and resulting enormous legal fees, costs that the client pays willingly because they still are far less than the price of a judgment against the company.
In the second case, the firm has accepted pro bono representation of a Virginia man on death row. Even this noble task has selfish motives. The firm has accepted this case because young associates often have a noble streak in their make-up. The firm accepts this type of work as a project for summer associates who find this type of work exciting. But the Virginia case has dragged beyond the summer and now associates must be pulled from billable hours to handle this litigation. To their credit they achieve justice for their client, as well as glory that the firm is only too glad to accept.
After reading IN THE SHADOW OF THE LAW it is hard to predict what future novels by Kermit Roosevelt will yield. His characters are entertaining and his plots maintain the readers' interest. But he needs to write less like a lawyer and more like a novelist to keep readers coming back to his future efforts. After all, most of us who enjoy courtroom novels are not lawyers. We care much less about the intricacies of major law firms than we do about page-turning, exciting plots. Remembering that fact will make Roosevelt's next effort even more readable.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 22, 2011
In the Shadow of the Law
- Publication Date: May 26, 2005
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 384 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- ISBN-10: 0374261873
- ISBN-13: 9780374261870