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A Review of Robert Ebert Byrnes & Jaime Marquart's Brush With the Law


Friday, Apr. 12, 2002

Robert Ebert Byrnes & Jaime Marquart: Brush with the Law: The True Story of Law School Today at Harvard and Stanford (Renaissance Books 2001)

The authors, Robert Ebert Byrnes and Jaime Marquart, graduated with good grades from Stanford and Harvard Law Schools, respectively. Along the way, they expended very little effort - and indeed, didn't even bother to show up for many of their classes, relying on commercial outlines like Gilbert's and elaborate scamming strategies to get them through.

Their story has a happy ending. Byrnes and Marquart ended up at the excellent, unconventional L.A. firm Quinn Emanuel- which is thinly disguised in the book as "Young & Mathers." (Like the fictional Young & Mathers, Quinn Emanuel was founded by rebels who had previously worked at Cravath; as the authors admit, "There's no law firm called Young & Mathers, but there's one just like it.")

As a result, the main message of Brush with the Law is this: We slacked our way to law school success, and so can you. Indeed, according to Byrnes and Marquart, you can do so while pretty much exhausting the jurisdiction of the vice squad. The cover blurb describes their book as a story "of class-ditching, orgies, hookers, hard drugs, and card-counting," and that's pretty accurate.

Sometimes the book reads as Hunter S. Thompson might have, if he had occasionally been required to take a Civil Procedure Exam. (Thompson raves in a back-cover blurb about the book's "wonderfully depraved" sensibility and its insight into "the pathological greed that rules the black heart of the legal profession.")

But along the way, the larger importance and context of the story get a bit lost. While Byrnes and Marquart revel in the fact that they were able to slack their way through law school, they provide comparatively little commentary on why it was possible for them to do so. They play the system like a violin, but never consider why it exists, or how or why it might be changed.

That's not surprising - in some ways, the authors are ironists, rebels, and even nihilists, and their interest is in offering strategy for students, not constructive criticism for schools. But it's a bit disappointing for readers who think that law school, even if it shouldn't be like One L, probably shouldn't be like this either.

The Anthropology of Law School

The cleverest part of Brush with the Law is its typology of law students' personalities. With an anthropologist's flair, the book nails common types that any law school grad will recognize.

There are the "waist-up crazy" guys: "If you shot him from the waist up, he'd fit right into a Butthole Surfers video. Below the belt, he looked like your dad. Waist-up crazy guys will take a small leap into the unusual, but they always have to anchor it with something safe, something Gap."

Finally, Marquart's description of the Cold Stover - a personality type that is less noxious, and more poignant - is also spot-on. Cold Stovers, according to Marquart, overestimate risks. Like the dog burned by a hot stove who afterwards will never touch a cold stove either, they fear an inappropriately wide set of situations, assuming the existence of dangers that never actually materialize.

Again, with the Cold Stovers, Marquart has put his finger on a type with which any law school student will be familiar. He has explained, as well, why many lawyers who have been in the profession for years have a nagging feeling that something is missing from their lives - bemoaning the risks they never took, often due to an inordinate fear of failure and consequent shame.

Can This Experiment Be Successfully Repeated?

Ironically, in the midst of their clever legal anthropology, Byrnes and Marquart never dissect their own type - but the book would have been more interesting if they had. Bearing a strong resemblance to the few brilliant high school stoners who could hang out in the parking lot and still ace their exams, this type might be called the Stoner Savant.

One thing the book makes clear is that Byrnes and Marquart (and their friend known only as "The Kankoos") have a gift - and it's a gift not only for anthropological observation, but also for the law. Their brief, casual explanations of legal issues are notable for their clarity and accuracy - qualities rare in legal discussions.

But the authors' own virtuosity, ironically, puts the point of their book in jeopardy. Is it really clear that anyone else could follow the authors' path? Or might they, and their type, have a unique skill - of quick study and crystal-clear writing - that not everyone can mimic?

In my Yale Law School class, there was at least one Stoner Savant type - who spent much of each semester playing golf in another state, offered to eat things off the floor of bars for money, and convinced a studious classmate to enter a "Hot Legs" contest. (She won.) But he was also one of the most brilliant people in the class, and one of the most successful in law school and after.

Could the rest of his classmates have replicated his casual success? Perhaps, but if we're not the Stoner Savant type, we might want to beware. (Of course, Byrnes and Marquart would accuse me of being a Cold Stover for saying so.)

Money: That's What They Want

Marquart, for his part, offers a paean to the legal education not because of what it can accomplish, but because of the freedom it offers: "A Harvard Law degree is a blank check written on every developed market in the world, the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card, the soft fallback, the master-key door opener. You can shelve all of that Save-the-World sentiment for your entrance essays, campaign speeches, and TV interviews."

What Byrnes and Marquart miss, however, is that law schools themselves may have encouraged the authors to "shelve all of that Save-the-World sentiment."

Many law school essays - and the authors', reprinted here, are no different - suggest the would-be student may well become a public interest lawyer. (Marquart focuses on growing up in poverty; Byrnes cites his experience as a speechwriter as evidence that the "romance of politics" continues for him.) Yet only a small percentage of each class actually goes into public interest law or works for the government. Many more work for law firms - in part because they are typically saddled with huge debt, and get used to the lifestyle the firms allow.

Accordingly, Byrnes and Marquart have conformed more than they admit. Despite all the drug, sex and repeated playing of Natalie Merchant, they have followed the path of the large majority of their classmates - high ideals voiced in an admissions essay, and a lucrative law firm career after graduation.

The "money is everything" message is not an iconoclastic message; it's the message many law schools, including Harvard's and Stanford's, are sending - unwittingly or not. They continue to charge skyrocketing tuitions despite huge endowments. They fail to treat clinical faculty members, who teach students how to litigate in public interest areas, as the equal of other faculty members. And they fail, in general, to support public interest choices as strongly as they support law firm choices. (It's very easy to get a law firm job from Harvard or Stanford Law School - you just show up for campus interviews, as Marquart and Byrnes did. Getting a public interest job is far more challenging and difficult.)

Brush with the Law's tactics are shock tactics: Like the Hollywood hooker by night/honor student by day, the authors offer the allure of a double life - promising that crack use need not be addictive, and that law school is a breeze. But the real shock of the book is that, once the felonies and misdemeanors are stripped away, Byrnes and Marquart hew unsettlingly close to the norm.

Julie Hilden, a FindLaw columnist, practiced First Amendment law at the D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99. Currently a freelance writer, she published a memoir, The Bad Daughter, in 1998. Her forthcoming novel Three will be published in French translation by Actes Sud.

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