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Monday, Jan. 22, 2001

Amy Gutman's first novel, Equivocal Death (Little Brown 2001) — an intelligent, suspenseful and fast-paced legal thriller — was published this month. Here, we bring you an interview with the author, who responded to a series of written questions posed by FindLaw columnist Julie Hilden. (Full disclosure: Hilden also knows Gutman socially.)

Equivocal Death's heroine, Kate Paine, is a law firm associate who is assigned to defend a high-profile sexual harassment case, only to find that the female partner she is to work with has been brutally murdered. After the murder, the law firm's well-ordered environment is repeatedly marked by violence — and Kate begins to think she herself may be the murderer's next victim.

Gutman, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former journalist, practiced law for four years in New York City — though somewhat less hazardously than Kate.

Q: How did you come to write Equivocal Death?

A: I'd always fantasized about writing a novel. I just didn't know what it would be about. It wasn't until I found myself working as an attorney at a large New York law firm that I got the glimmer of an idea for a book.

Watching my colleagues — brilliant, vital people with diverse interests, most in their mid-twenties — I found myself wondering why are we doing this? Privileged as we were, why had we settled for work that was forcing us to suppress the very things that made us unique? That question became the seed for Equivocal Death.

I've always had a thing for stories that start out in a deceptively perfect world that turns out to have an incredibly dark underpinning. Equivocal Death is that kind of book. In many ways, it's a classic thriller, but it's also a coming of age story. My protagonist, Kate Paine, has tried to play it safe, to follow a conventional route to success that has very little to do with who she really is. The book is about the cost of this decision and how Kate comes to find a more authentic way of life.

A: Large law firms are extreme environments, and that's what I set out to capture. To a large extent, I use murder as a metaphor. The phrase "equivocal death" has a dual meaning: It's a term of art used by homicide investigators to describe an ambiguous crime scene — when it's unclear whether a homicide or suicide has occurred. But it also speaks to the experience of many of the people who work at Samson & Mills. Are they really alive? Is this sort of existence really a life? I think many lawyers ask themselves these questions.

Q: Equivocal Death is very observant about the daily details of law-firm life, for women in particular — whether it's the unspoken pressure to cut one's hair into the regulation chin-length bob, the obligatory Tahari suits, or the more serious issue of whether a woman associate relates to a male partner as a father figure or in a sexually charged way. Kate's college roommate Tara — with her long, curly hair, her bohemian outfits — seems to provide the voice of reason, even urging Kate to date outside the firm rather than becoming a sort of law firm nun. Yet do you think a woman like Kate, who made the choice to go to a law firm, also has something to teach a woman like Tara — and if so, what?

A: In a way, Kate and Tara can be seen as parts of one person. Early in the book, Kate defends her job saying that it helps her structure her time. Tara responds that slavery helped structure time, too, but that hardly justified it. When I was practicing law, I'd lie awake and have these sorts of internal dialogues with myself.

Kate has experienced a lot of loss–her parents' divorce, her mother's death, her boyfriend's desertion. She's far more challenged than Tara is. She's doing the best she can with what she has to work with. Like everyone, she's a work in progress.

At times, Tara can't quite see this. She's frustrated with Kate–wants her simply to arrive at an end point without going through the process of getting there. Tara could use a little compassion. Just as Kate needs to develop compassion for herself.

Q: Cravath, Swaine and Moore, where you once worked as an associates, is definitely on the minds of the characters in Equivocal Death — both as another high-profile, workaholic firm, and another firm that suffered a partner's murder. To what extent does Equivocal Death draw on your own time at Cravath — and on that firm's experience of dealing with a partner's murder?

A: Cravath is the only large law firm where I've worked, and I certainly drew on what I'd experienced there. More generally, though I was interested in the institution of the large law firm.

Some of the stories that appear in Equivocal Death–the stapler-throwing partner, the associate who drops dead during a conference call–are actual stories I've heard from lawyer friends at various firms. They're sort of like urban myths. Are they true? I don't know. But the fact that they're told over and over says something about how young lawyers experience their lives in these places. The stories capture the zeitgeist of the experience, if not the objective reality.

That's pretty much what I set out to do as well. The actual events and people portrayed in Equivocal Death are entirely fictitious. I was actually still in law school when Cravath partner David Schwartz was murdered, though, like most of my classmates, I devoured James Stewart's New Yorker article about the case.

Q: Your acknowledgments are unusual in that you thank someone whom you never met, but who still had a large influence on you — Jonathan Larson, the author of the musical Rent. You mention that you read Larson's journals in the course of doing legal work for his estate, and that the journals inspired you to pursue writing. What, specifically, about Larson's journals convinced you?

A: Jonathan Larson really lived on the edge financially. Yet he had absolutely no doubt that he was doing the right thing. Reading his journals pushed me to reconsider my own concerns about security. I'd had a lot of doubts about whether I could afford to take time off from practicing law to try to write a book. At a very practical level, he helped me to see that I could.

Also, as I worked on the Rent case, there was this constant awareness of how fragile and uncertain life is. Jonathan was this brilliant, healthy young guy and then suddenly, without warning, he was dead. Being confronted with that so clearly made me more determined to seize the moment. No day but today. That's a line from a song in Rent, and it pretty much sums up my thoughts.

Q: The sexual harassment plot of Equivocal Death takes place on two levels — Kate is assigned to work on a sexual harassment case, defending an executive at a somewhat Maxim-like men's magazine, and yet she and the partner she works for, Madeleine Waters, also face sexual harassment at their own firm, Samson & Mills. Why did you choose this bi-level structure?

A: That's a great question. I guess one of the things I wanted to explore is the–perhaps inevitable–collision between human experience and legal theory. Kate finds herself defending a total scumbag. At the same time, she's intrigued by the case—by the glamorous high-profile players, by the intellectual challenge of the issues. At this level, it's all incredibly seductive.

To avoid facing the underlying moral questions, Kate adopts a sort of detachment. She convinces herself, at least for a time, that this case has nothing to do with her. In the end, though, she can't keep up the separation. Her sense that she's somehow protected turns out to be an illusion. And that's a central part of the book–Kate's ultimate realization that she's not invulnerable.

With Madeleine Waters, I was looking at a somewhat different issue: At the very murky question of what constitutes — or what should constitute–sexual harassment. At the far end of the spectrum is rape. What happened to Madeleine is at the other extreme–in fact, does not even fall within the legal definition of sexual harassment.

As a young woman, Madeleine freely chose to have an affair with a powerful law firm partner. Her career didn't suffer. In fact, there's even some indication that she may have benefited from the relationship–that her election to the Samson & Mills partnership may have owed something to this affair.

The problem is she'll never know if she could have succeeded on her own. As the years go by, this doubt becomes corrosive. And the question is, what do we do, if anything, about the fact that such things happen? I don't know the answer. I think it's a difficult question.

Q: Another clever echoing in the book occurs when two characters separately consult legal treatises as a guide for their own lives. One is a woman who is wondering whether she suffered a legal rape; another is a murderer who questions whether he fits the legal definition of sanity. What were you trying to convey in having these characters bizarrely seek the answers to their real-life problems in law books, while finding some comfort there?

A: I think one of the reasons many of us are drawn to study law is that we hunger for rationality, for an ordering principle that will somehow fend off chaos. The more confusing the other parts of our lives, the more we cling to it. That's certainly the case with these characters. There's a sort of childlike reassurance that comes from consulting a controlling authority. Yet the chasm between life and law is often an incredibly wide one. I was interested in that irony.

Q: The first time we meet the beautiful, powerful partner Madeleine Waters, Kate thinks, "She seemed to embody a bright new world, a place where power and femininity could coexist." This first impression foreshadows a later disillusionment and when the disillusionment comes, it's brutal. What are your own thoughts on power, femininity, and law firm partnership?

A: The eighties image of the female lawyer in a little bow tie and high-necked shirt was pretty much gone by the time I arrived. I was struck by the determination of many female associates not to surrender their femaleness.

There was a lot of talk over lunch about fashion, make-up, haircuts. Certainly more than I'd seen in law school. Maybe it's a little bit like macrobiotic food — when you consume extreme yin foods like sugar and alcohol, the theory is you need extreme yang, say red meat, to balance it out. In the same sort of way, this quasi-military law firm ethic almost seemed to fuel a certain type of femininity. I think, too, there's an element of defiance there: 'I can wear cool shoes and write briefs. I won't be put in a box.'

Q: Catharine MacKinnon's book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women, has a large role — indeed, almost a prophetic role — in Equivocal Death. Kate is initially ignorant of the book, and repeats the usual "all sex is rape" misapprehension people have of MacKinnon's message: "[D]oesn't she say that sexual relations between men and women are never consensual?" What do you think of the book, and of MacKinnon? And do you know what MacKinnon thinks of the book?

A: A friend of mine— a law firm partner–who read a draft of Equivocal Death laughed about how, as a young lawyer, she'd thought Catharine MacKinnon was this wild-eyed extremist, while now much of what MacKinnon says makes perfect sense. I haven't read much of MacKinnon's writings other than Sexual Harassment of Working Women, but I too was struck by how resonant the ideas were. And I don't think I would have said that when I was younger.

For example, MacKinnon writes about a female tendency to internalize male superiors' judgments, to adopt them as components of one's own identity. I have a much greater appreciation for how powerful these external judgments can be than I did, say, when I graduated from college.

I think when you're first starting out, you're so hopeful. There's a strong tendency to see the world as you want it to be instead of how it is. Things are so much simpler that way.

Finally, I got a call from Yale saying that Professor MacKinnon had reviewed the pages at issue and signed off. According to the person I spoke with, her actual response was, "What a trip!" I got a kick out of that. It would have made a great blurb, I think.

Q: Using the terminology of sexual harassment law, it seems fair to say Samson & Mills (aptly abbreviated "S&M") is a "hostile environment" for Kate — but how much of its hostility did you see as being gender-related?

A: That's hard to say. In some ways, it's not so much a gender issue but a temperament issue. The firm is a hostile environment for anyone who values qualities traditionally considered feminine: Creativity, emotional depth, the desire for a balanced life.

Of course, there are definitely aspects of the firm that affect women more than men. The most obvious is the sexual dynamic. The vast majority of law firm partners are straight men. For the most part, men just don't face the question of whether their superiors are sexually attracted to them. Sex simply plays no role.

For women, the issue is much hazier. Even when there's absolutely no harassment, the issue is still there. Traditional men may still expect women to demonstrate traditional "female" virtues–to be attractive, admiring and, to some extent, submissive.

Q: If you could make law firms different for women, how would you do so?

A: I don't know that I can really answer that. Women are so different from each other.

Q: What is your next project?

A: I'm working on another novel–also a thriller–that develops many of the same themes I explored in Equivocal Death, though from a somewhat different angle. It's too early for me to say much more. But, please, stay tuned!

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