Big Law:A Novel(3)

By: Ron Liebman

Welcome to the world of Big Law. A world run by men like Carl Smith. (Mostly) white men with brilliant minds and easy smiles that at once conceal and reveal their true nature: they’re predators.

Big Law is selective. Hard to get in. Even harder to stay in.

The country’s leading law firms recruit new lawyers each and every year. Almost exclusively from the best law schools. Mostly from the big three: Harvard, Yale, Stanford. Top-of-the-class students graduating from state law schools and so-called second-tier law schools do also get hired, though in smaller numbers.

I was first in my class at Rutgers University’s law school. I made the cut.

From the first day I stepped into the offices of Dunn & Sullivan, I got the distinct impression that I was cannon fodder. That I was there to work my ass off, but there was no way someone like me would be allowed to go the distance. The obligatory (except for Carl) eight years before eligibility for partnership selection.

I was an outsider. In the club, but only as a guest.

Work my ass off I did. On every assignment. Did my job no matter what, no matter how long it took, or how many times I had to do it over.

I beat the odds. Made partner on my first try. But know what? That feeling of otherness, of not being one of them?

Still there.

I’m a big guy. Not overweight. Just big. I love my Irish roots. I’ve got dark, curly hair and dark eyes. I grew up lower-class, what back then was called “shanty Irish” or, given my looks, “black Irish.” Now I suppose I’d be called “lace-curtain Irish.”

I could dress a little better, could keep my ties more tightly tucked under my shirt collar. And I still speak in a working-class New Yorkese. I could change that. Drop the accent. But I don’t. In some way I can’t really articulate, it defines me.

Carl Smith (still checking me out) was my opposite. He was small-boned and oh, so very neat. Brioni suits (I later learned), crisp designer ties, perfectly coiffed hair. And not even a trace of Staten Island in his speech. Then Carl said:

“Here’s what I want you to do. Read that file. It’s a plaintiffs’ class-action case. You have handled class actions before, right?”

And I had.

Class-action cases contain a large number of claimants who have the facts and law in common. The courts allow all the plaintiffs to join together in one lawsuit rather than having umpteen lawsuits litigating the same case over and over and over.

I had been a member of several class-action trial teams. But Dunn & Sullivan had always been on the defendants’ side of these cases. Never the plaintiffs’. Typically the defendants were the corporate bad guys: The drillers. The spillers. The killers.

Yes, those were our clients. The best lawyers for the worst offenders. That’s the system. Everyone is entitled to legal representation. Bad guys included. Otherwise there is no system.

Okay, so Smith wants to take on the plaintiffs’ side. The good guys for a change. Fine with me.

So I nodded, yeah, I have. (It would be nice if that cat would come back with my tongue.)

“Okay. Learn the file, then put together your trial team.”

My trial team?

As though Smith read my thoughts:

“I am placing you in charge of this case. Everyone on it will report to you. You will report to me. But you will be in charge of all day-to-day activities.”

Up until then I hadn’t been in charge of anything. Junior partners were not placed in charge of major cases. Yet Smith was placing me in charge of one.

Something wasn’t adding up.

I quickly flushed that thought down the drain. Instead my thinking went along these lines:

Carl Smith had seen something in me that caused him to ignore firm practice and put me in charge of a major case (the firm chairman didn’t personally assign minor cases). This despite my relative lack of experience.

Maybe it was our similar childhoods? Maybe he had a soft spot in his heart for up-from-the-street achievers like he was?

Then again, Carl Smith didn’t have a heart.

He did have this false charm. Something he could play like the proverbial Stradivarius when he chose to, though he never did for me.

So I was sitting there feeling pretty good about myself. Totally missing Smith’s body language signaling that the meeting was over. That it was time for me to leave.

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