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Friday, Apr. 12, 2002

Robert Ebert Byrnes and Jaime Marquart, graduates of Stanford and Harvard Law Schools, respectively, have written a memoir of their law school lives, Brush with the Law (Renaissance Books 2001), that flies in the face of the teachings of One L and "The Paper Chase." Indeed, the cover blurb describes the book accurately as a story not only of law school, but also "of class-ditching, orgies, hookers, hard drugs, and card-counting," Here, we bring you an interview with the authosr, who responded to a series of written questions posed by FindLaw columnist Julie Hilden.

Q: What inspired you to collaborate to write Brush with the Law?

(Together) We were sitting around what turns out to be not too crappy a law firm at all in what turns out to be not too crappy a job at all, having a conversation with some other people we worked with who actually turned out to be pretty crappy people.

(JAIME) My message was received about the same as if I'd just cut my own wee-wee off and swallowed it whole. We looked at each other, smiled, and got the hell out of there. A few beers later, at Hank's American Bar and Grill, the book was born.

Q: You begin the book by reprinting a Yale Law grad's email request that you temper your story, and an accompanying warning that "the value of your degrees - and that of everyone else's - may be affected by what you write." I imagine from this that you faced a fair amount of hostility from some quarters over your book's publication. What form did it take? Was it difficult to deal with? Any problems with your law firms?

(ROBERT) About three-quarters, to be more precise, of those who've heard of us.

(JAIME) The other five people like us quite a lot--of course, Byrnes laid them all.

(ROBERT) We've always had faith that the world wouldn't crumble into decay if we were all a little more honest with ourselves. Others are prone to disagree.

(JAIME) And, truthfully, writing this book has caused many of those who disagree to share some of their inner thoughts, and caused us to reconsider our premise--Catholic priest doesn't even begin to describe the things in those heads!!!!

(Together) As for the law firm, we always let them do their own talking--but, as far as we're concerned, they've been great. We tell them, "we did this stuff, but the bad parts are in our past," and they say,"OK, just give us good work," and we do.

(JAIME) Plus, the crackhead pretty much just rides his bike in circles all day, so he doesn't hurt anybody.

Q: On the other hand, how did you get Hunter S. Thompson's terrific quote for the back cover - which compliments the book as "wonderfully depraved"? Were you modelling the book on Thompson and his sensibility?

Q: The book makes it obvious why you are close friends - a similarity in sense of humor, outlook, and even sometimes in writing style. But what would you say are the main contrasts between you, and your experiences with law school?

(JAIME) Byrnes is hands-down the better writer. But hey, I'm ten years younger, and I was only drunk when I wrote my half!

(ROBERT) NINE years older! Jaime's a natural story-teller, and helps me talk to people. I don't really get people.

Q: For two guys who boast of having scammed law school, you are awfully adept at describing legal principles succinctly and without jargon. Indeed, the book intermittently offers a quick legal education in synopsis. Do you give any credit to Harvard and Stanford Law for the ability you both share to explain legal issues clearly, or do you think your educations were actually antithetical to that talent?

(ROBERT) I wouldn't say our law school experience was antithetical, but it certainly wasn't integral--smart people, and smart ideas, exist everywhere in life, and many of them exist at Harvard and Stanford. And dumb ideas do too. Our point isn't to crap on our degrees, but it isn't to rest upon them either--a Stanford or Harvard sheepskin is not a proxy for genius.

(JAIME) What does "antithetical" mean?

Q: If I had to choose the main theme of the book, it would probably be compulsion - the drive to succeed, the drive to scam, the drive to do drugs, the drive to gamble, the drive towards danger and risk. How much are, and were, you controlled by drives like these, and how much do, and did, you control them and use them? Did you see the various drives as a problem or an asset?

(JAIME) The drives--to gamble, smoke pot, take some personal (sexual) risks--were a symptom of being full of eagerness but short on meaning, and being stuck among a bunch of people with plenty of alleged meaning and little if any enthusiasm for it. An old-timer once told me, "You gamble because, if you don't have action, nothing can happen." Nothing happening used to be the biggest fear in my life. Now, I tend to think the most courageous act one can take is being happy where they are, with what they've got. As for the "problem vs. asset" part, gambling is only a problem if you lose.

(ROBERT) Crack is ultimately a problematic pursuit--almost everyone I knew in that world was dead or imprisoned inside of a year. That's why I don't care for it anymore, and why many people wonder why anyone ever would care for it. But no one who's done it wonders...

(JAIME) You answered the question in your question--I grew up in poverty--which, in America, really only means that my belly ached with hunger every now and then, McDonald's was a special treat, and kids ragged on my generic plastic tennies on the playground. Money was always the motivating goal for going to Harvard, and I'm not afraid to be honest about it. That said, I always admired the ones who truly found what they believed in. They are the lucky ones. But let's be honest--take the few people who actually pursue public interest, take out the ones who are in it for the power-over-people thing, then take out the independently wealthy ones, and the ones who are really just afraid of working long hours--now you've got yourself four or five damned good people. But are they really worth a whole chapter?

(ROBERT) I have all but given up my law job for the one thing that always meant something to me. I'm primarily a bike messenger now, and this last year I started a bikers' co-op with a few of my two-wheeled brothers and sisters that helps us all live a little freer and cleaner. On the side, I write law briefs. That's enough meaning for me.

Q: Do you see your experiences as being generational - a type of high-functioning slacking, or the response to belonging to a generation you describe as Not-the-Greatest?

(Together) We won't get credit for even RE-inventing slacking. Restlessness is everywhere. The simple fact is, life (for 99 percent of us, anyway) is not so hard--if you don't have a lot of idle time, you should probably reconsider your approach.

Q: What advice would you give to someone considering going to law school? After reading your book, they may be comforted that law school is not the hair-raising experience One L or Paper Chase would suggest. But is it something worth doing? If you could do it all over again, would you? And, would you tell applicants to go to Stanford, Harvard, or somewhere else entirely?

(JAIME) If I had to do it all again, I would. Except, I could do without the gassy hooker, and I'd stay clear of The Golden Banana. And as for giving others advice, that makes me a little nervous. But I can't think of many ways to make damned good dough in a job that keeps your neurons pumping every day you punch in. And I still believe this--if you're going to law school and you get into Harvard, you're a fool if you don't go. Every range of choice exists there, and especially beyond there--you don't have to be me, but you can if you want.

(ROBERT) I hear it's actually hard at other schools.

(JAIME) Like Yale?


The interviewer, Julie Hilden, is a FindLaw columnist. She 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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