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A Review of Phillip Margolin's The Associate


Friday, Nov. 09, 2001

Phillip Margolin, The Associate (HarperCollins 2001)

In good times and bad, associates at big city law firms generally live in a world known by few others. In exchange for working 12 to 20 hour days, they take home hefty salaries, pay down law school debt, and usually spend good money on what little free time they have. If they work and play hard, they could eventually become partners, entitling them to a percentage of the law firm's annual profits.

Daniel Ames, the scrappy young lawyer in "The Associate" — the latest legal thriller by Phillip Margolin — has the kind of work ethic that big law firms want and expect. But he never imagined that it would mean putting his life on the line for either his Portland, Oregon firm, or one of its clients. He'll only have time to enjoy his $90,000 per year salary if he manages to survive.

Another attorney asks Ames to stay late to review documents that belong to a firm client, a pharmaceutical company, and that are supposed to be delivered to opposing counsel the next morning. Ames jumps at the chance. Like most associates, he wants to show initiative, to help a colleague, and to impress the firm.

Helping represent Geller Pharmaceuticals in a multimillion-dollar Thalidomide-like drug product liability lawsuit is a cause Ames believes in. He's convinced that the claims the plaintiffs' lead attorney, Aaron Flynn, makes on behalf of the plaintiffs have no merit. After all, Flynn built his Oregon practice by getting companies to settle product liability lawsuits after threatening that going to trial would wreak financial and public relations damage.

Ames starts having doubts about the case, however, particularly when sees the badly deformed infant for whom Flynn filed suit. But he doesn't have time to quit; he's fired instead.

Indeed, less than a day after meeting his opposing counsel, Ames is not only fired by his firm, but threatened, nearly killed, arrested, and charged with murder. His world is crumbling fast.

Not only can't the attorney afford defense counsel, but he isn't sure whom he can trust anymore. People he meets or knows are either disappearing or dropping like flies. How far will the parties in big-stakes civil litigation go to win?

Investigate This: Margolin Explains the Role of Investigators and Other Players

As this brief summary of the book's initial chapters indicates, Margolin spins a good tale — and a thorough and accurately-researched one. Readers get a fairly detailed explanation of some of the issues in arson investigations, for example.

One highlight is the author's description of the in-chambers critique of a particularly unstable witness, by the judge overseeing Ames' bail hearing. Prosecutors and defense attorneys should not be surprised by the judge's off-the-record comments to counsel about the witness's testimony.

For the public and attorneys who have never practiced criminal, products liability, or family law, Margolin does a terrific job of explaining an investigator's role in high stakes civil or criminal litigation. He makes clear why lawyers rely upon investigators for information that can make or break a case.

One disappointment, though, was Margolin's decision to weave the stories of characters in three states (Oregon, New York, and Arizona) into a seemingly disjointed plot that is, at times, hard to follow.

Margolin's characterizations, however, are stronger than his plotting. Ames has an interesting childhood (he ran away from home early and often) and his adulthood is even more interesting (he is probably one of only a few associates who have ever spent a few nights in jail before he started practicing law.)

Ames' jail stay is not exactly the kind of thing that a $90,000 a year associate puts on a resume next to his Law Review honors when trying to land his first job. But Ames' experience just goes to show that one never knows if the lessons learned in the joint might keep you alive.

Joel R. Zand is an attorney, senior producer, and book reviewer for FindLaw's Writ.

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