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Bar News - October 7, 2005

Book Review - In the Shadow of the Law, By Kermit Roosevelt


A book review by Larry Gillis


In the Shadow of the Law by Kermit Roosevelt, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2005, may be purchased at bookstores (list price, $24) or new and used from various sources on line.



There was a time when law professors were simply that—law professors, occasionally famous because of the quality of their teaching, or the insightfulness of their law review articles or maybe even the primordial force of their classroom personas. 


For example, some of us may remember Professor Henry Monaghan at Boston University School of Law.  He had the processing capacity of a Cray computer, the focus of a lightning bolt and the personality of a chain saw.  We loved him.


Nowadays, however, a law professor “makes his bones” by recording a CD with a live band or perhaps by writing a novel about lawyers, as Professor Kermit Roosevelt has done here.  It has become important, apparently, to prove how au courant one can be.


The good news is that law professors, by dint of the unforgiving discipline of law school lectures, usually write well.  This is true even when they are creating materials not ordinarily  “accessed” by Westlaw or Lexis-Nexis.  In the Shadow of the Law is no exception.


Kermit Roosevelt has obviously drawn on his big law firm experience and his background as a U.S. Supreme Court law clerk in creating this novel (Roosevelt’s first) with its pastiche of characters.  The plot is partially driven by the story of a young full-time associate, who is working pro bono on a death-penalty case.  I say “partially” because there are several major threads to the novel and each is equally developed.  This approach magnifies Roosevelt’s real ability to analyze the motives of individual players.  However, it is confusing sometimes, the way the classic movie “Nashville” was confusing: too many characters, too little plot.  Roosevelt should appreciate that his readers really need unmistakable clues as to the direction of his story. 


The organizing thread, such as it is, consists in the associate’s work on the capital murder case, picking up after an incompetent trial attorney.  As he weaves his way past a number of attorneys at the appellate level who should have been representing this client’s interests zealously, it becomes apparent that these attorneys were caught up in their own “institutional” interests.  The suggestion is powerful that these types of interests color the handling of many cases, not just this one.


One major attraction is Roosevelt’s brutally honest description of the motivations of the lawyers who constitute most of the players. For example, senior partners at any large firm in New Hampshire will wince as the billings-minded senior partner in this novel instructs an associate to actually bill the client for the associate’s bathroom time.  This is because the associate had admitted to thinking about work-related matters while there. 


Continuing his attention to the billable time of associates, the senior partner then remembers to himself that he “…dreamed of wiring their brains to mark each fitful electric squall, like hairnets catching each fleeting moment of attention.”  Are there really senior partners like this in New Hampshire?


This same billings-minded senior partner views summer associates as “a necessary evil,” a loss leader, something to be tolerated solely to attract talented young lawyers into the firm. 


The summer associates are described as “…usually entirely lacking in basic legal skills, and often in basic knowledge as well.”  Pro bono work is viewed as the perfect solution to the question of what to do with them, without actually losing any clients. 

Elsewhere in the novel, appointed lawyers do not fare much better:  “Most of the time the appointed lawyer is giving last rites.  It’s a ritual.  But there’s value to ritual,” writes Roosevelt.


Incidentally, the young associate working on the death-penalty case is given some advice on reading the Virginia Supreme Court opinion that reviews the trial.  “Everything in there is calculated to make sure he gets the needle.  So when you read through it, think about what would have made it more convincing.  If there’s something that would have been damning that isn’t in the opinion, that’s probably because it doesn’t exist.  And if it doesn’t exist, that might be an opening.”


One can only wonder why this particular appellate court gets this particular kind of treatment from Roosevelt.  I mean, if I penned lines like this about our own NH Supreme Court, you would be justified in wondering exactly when and how they had stepped on my tail feathers.  (They have not, but thanks for asking.) 


In a shameless nod to his own clerking experience at the highest level of the federal court system, Roosevelt has another character think, “The reason there were right answers at the appellate level, he’d realized, was largely that the lower courts were bound to follow the decisions of the Supreme Court.”  This seems to be Roosevelt’s public love letter to all his friends at Lafayette Square.


Roosevelt’s novel is not at all kind to the legal concept of “securitization” of corporate assets, by which the assets are “parked” outside the corporate structure and are thus beyond the reach of creditors.  Actually, Roosevelt’s use of this concept in his novel is clever.  Any corporate lawyer reading this novel should be able to bill this time as research on behalf of a client. 


In the Shadow of the Law was reviewed by Professor Alan Dershowitz in the New York Times Book Review in the June 12th issue, a review certainly worthy of attention.  Maybe your summer associates could look it up for you.


After all, it’ll give them something to do.


Associate Professor Larry Gillis of Rye teaches paralegal courses online for Kaplan University.  He became an inactive NHBA member in April. His Web site is


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