Finally, there's a legal thriller that seeks to go beyond simply using the law as a setting for reader entertainment. And it's a first legal thriller, at that - by law professor (and sometime FindLaw guest columnist) Scott Gerber. Gerber is recognized for his legal scholarship and, in particular, his books on the Constitution and Supreme Court jurisprudence. He also has written a prior (non-legal) novel, The Ivory Tower.
As a lawyer, I am generally not big on legal novels. I get a steady diet of the law at work, and would rather read fiction based on just about any other topic. Every so often, however, I will pick up a novel based on the law if it looks interesting. For instance, I recently finished both In the Shadow of the Law by Kermit Roosevelt and The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly. Both were what I call "fun reads" in that they were entertaining stories with interesting characters and mildly thought provoking story lines.
Gerber's The Law Clerk, however, is not merely a "fun read"; it's much more ambitious than that.
Gerber's novel confronts the reader with two themes that are challenging, if not upsetting. The first is pornography and the not-so-subtle psychological and sexual abuse lingering in its background. The second is the law itself and, more to the point in this novel, the law as seen through the eyes of still-idealistic law clerks.
As the two main characters seek to understand how the law deals - or fails to deal -- with intractable social problems like pornography, they also grapple with another, more personal issue: How can they find careers within the law in which they believe they can be fulfilled? Ultimately, The Law Clerk takes a very serious - yet still entertaining -- look at the law and those who devote their lives to it.
The Plot: Two Law Clerks, A Missing Girlfriend, and a Mafia Don's Son's Trial
The central character in the novel is Sam Grimes, a law clerk to U.S. District Judge Artur Reis in Providence, Rhode Island. Grimes rooms with his fellow clerk, Chad Smith, and they lead the life of young, single lawyers, trolling for women, drinking beer, and maintaining an appropriate fixation on the other national pastime - baseball.
They have finally escaped academia, and are eager to not only see the law in action, but to play an instrumental role in its interpretation and enforcement -- as they research the intricacies of the legal issues presented in real-life cases, and confer with the judge, helping to guide him as he presides over a trial court. It's a very familiar scenario for just about any lawyer who can still recall his or her first years in practice, whether in a clerkship or otherwise: full of hope, excitement and curiosity.
Our introduction to the love of Sam's life, Mary Jackson, in contrast, is jarring and disturbing. We witness her sexual abuse at the hands of her father when she is still a very young girl. The fun ends at this point (page 18, to be precise), but this novel remains riveting: It's here that you are put on notice that you are about to be challenged, not just entertained.
Readers who stick it out will be rewarded with a novel that turns their focus to serious issues. But they will get entertained along the way, too - and, ultimately, that is why I believe the novel succeeds. It involves not only courtroom drama, in which the son of a mafia don is the defendant, but also Sam's desperate quest to locate Mary - who has gone missing.
Spoiler alert: Don't read the following two paragraphs if you don't want to know more of the plot.
Mary, it turns out, has been coerced by the mafia scion, Joey Mancini, to act (if one can call it that) in several pornographic productions by Mancini's firm, Midnight Productions, most notably, one entitled "Law Clerks in Love."
The trial of Joey; the attempts by his father, Don Mancini, to extend his influence to the case itself; the participation in the action by assorted mafia henchmen; and Sam's mission to nail Mancini with obscenity charges and find his girlfriend Mary, all make for an exciting and fast-paced read. Not until the end does Sam learn the horrible connection between the two endeavors,
A Novel That Gets Especially Interesting, As It Gets Into Serious, Real Issues
Initially, Gerber depicts the titillation of pornography as if it were harmless; roommate Chad, for instance, has fun with his own porn collection. But this positive portrayal of porn soon gives way to the horrible truth: Many so-called porn starts are scared, lonely young women who, through abuse at an early age, came to believe that continuing the abuse and displaying it for others was their lot in life.
Just as the novel's view of pornography evolves, so too does Sam's: As he views the pornographic movies at issue in a case in the courtroom, along with the judge and lawyers, they cease to arouse him. All he can see on the screen as he watches endless sex acts is that there are "too many tragedies behind them, too many lost or stolen souls."
Sam's outrage at Mancini's profiting off of these women turns to his fervent hope that the law will right this wrong, notwithstanding First Amendment freedom-of-expression obstacles. As a law clerk, Sam pours himself and his still fresh legal training and innocent belief in the power of law into the case. He researches the complex web of Supreme Court precedents, trying to decipher the meanings of "redeeming social importance" and "community standards," and delving into procedural law regarding the appropriate role of trial courts and appellate courts. Because the stakes are high and very real, the reader is drawn to Sam's research with a sense of urgency, and we share his impatience with it as he looks for a simple answer, a straightforward way to nail this cretin sitting at the defense table with a smirk on his face and a custom-made suit on his back.
A Powerful Adversary, and a Shocking Ending
Mancini's lawyer, the smooth and handsome John Malone, however, knows how to play the game. He marshals not only the mafia connections and influence of his client, but also the ample supply of academic and judicial reverence for freedom of expression to launch a formidable defense of his client. Malone deftly admonishes the court that we must protect Joey Mancini's right to express his artistic views. We must protect him from the heavy-handed prosecutors with their zeal not only to suppress this freedom of expression but also to attack a prominent and successful family of immigrant entrepreneurs who have done so much for the community.
Does Malone prevail? All I'll say on this score is that the resolution of the story is as disturbing as the story itself. Still, I closed the book happy that I spent time reading a legal novel that proved to be truly substantive and that gave me a new appreciation for the legal and social issues presented by pornography. The Law Clerk also reminded me of the struggle most of us as lawyers still have with the law itself, stemming both from its far-from-perfect application to the real world, and our ongoing struggle to find a comfortable legal career path within that reality.