The Cultural Gutter

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First, Kill All the Lawyers. Or Not. Whatever.

Chris Szego
Posted October 29, 2009

weejulie.JPGI
never thought a courtroom would make a particularly good backdrop for
romance. Drama, certainly, in a gavel-pounding, “you can’t
handle the truth” sort of way. But I thought the procedural nature of the
law, with its rules and regulations, and sheer mind-numbing attention
to detail precluded any possibility of romance.

Sometimes it’s nice to be proved wrong.

In this case, I was schooled by Julie James. James herself was in her
third year as a trial lawyer at a large coporate law firm when she
had an idea for a romantic comedy. She wrote it as a screenplay, and
then wrote a second. Both were optioned. When the option on the first ran
out, her agent suggested she expand it. That story became her first
novel, Just the Sexiest Man Alive. I picked it up on a whim, and was impressed. About a movie star and
the lawyer who is assigned to him, very much against her will, for
role coaching, the book was smart, amusing, and had as much to say
about Hollywood as it did the courtroom. It was charming, witty, and, surprising in a contemporary, almost chaste.

James’ second book, Practice Makes Perfect,
is all law, all the time, and much to my own surprise, I liked it
even more than the first. Set in a large Chicago law firm, it’s
the story of lawyers Payton Kendall and J.D. Jameson. For eight
years they’ve competed with and aggravated one another, but in
order to make partner, they’ve avoided any outright conflict. Then
they’re asked to work together to land a major client. It would be
a huge coup for the firm, and both are prepared to suck it up and get
it done. Then they’re told that when it comes to making partner,
there’s only room enough for one.

Now,
Canadian law may differ slightly from its American cousin, but
partnerships work the same way: if you don’t make make partner the
year you’re up for it, your career at that firm is effectively
over. Both J.D. and Payton have put in hundreds of late nights, and
billed thousands of hours, but those efforts will mean nothing if
they don’t make partner. Both are very great litigators. But
Payton, who has fought her way up through what is still a
male-dominated profession, worries that the old-boy network will shut
her out at this critical moment. And J.D., who has something to
prove to his powerful and controlling family, is concerned that
recent equality-based hiring practices will leave him out in the
cold.

practice 250.jpgThe
way James tells the story, both are very real concerns (in truth,
Payton’s worry is much more valid: the firm’s recent decision to
hire ten percent more female partners will bring them up to a
whopping twenty-eight percent. And at almost every juncture, she has
to push her way through a male-erected barrier that J.D. doesn’t
even see. But while interesting, and kind of depressing, that’s
not the point). The firm knows Payton and J.D. both deserve to make
partner: it just doesn’t want to split the profits into that one
extra slice. So instead, two naturally antagonistic lawyers are set
up for a cage match. They don’t compete in the courtroom, though
we do get to see them operate there. But when the pressure mounts,
they begin to play tricks on one another. Mostly on each other’s
clothing, which is both more amusing and more damaging than it might
sound.

But this is a romance novel. And, it’s fairly clear to the reader that
the sparks Payton and J.D. strike off one another come from a fuel
that is definitely not dislike. The enemies-to-lovers trope is
usually a tough sell for me. Often the enmity is either fake, which
makes the story ridiculous, or it’s too real, which makes the
conversion incomprehensible. But in James’ skillful hands, it is
entirely believable, and very human. Sometimes it’s the smallest
and stupidest mistakes that force people off track. Luckily it often
only takes something small to set things right again. Like a
heartfelt apology, say: small, simple, and incredibly difficult. And
when written by Julie James, beautifully handled.

James’
ear for dialogue is excellent. Much of the major story events happen
in or around the dialogue, which is likely a carryover from her
screenwriting days. It sounds real,
and makes for a tight, immensely readable story about people you
might actually know. And she blends her setting seamlessly:
corporate law isn’t tacked on as an afterthought, it’s central to
everything the two main characters do. They use legal terms. They
perform the routines and practices of lawyers. They’re
argumentative, highly competitive, and always want to have the last
word. And they like
that about themselves. Because of James’ deft characterization and
sensitive prose, readers do too.

Liking corporate laywers? Who’d have guessed? In interviews, James
makes it clear that her stories are fiction.
While the general structure of law firms, courtroom practices and
lawyers’ days is correct, the clients and cases are entirely ,made
up
. She didn’t, however, invent is the crazy workload. The years of
eighteen hour days; the waist-high stacks of paperwork; the
ceaseless, unending demands on one’s time… yikes. Much, much
better to read all about it.

~~~

Chris
Szego, whose dear friend is a corporate lawyer, thinks “argumentative” and “competitive” are possibly not strong enough terms.

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