Getting to “Hopefully”

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Book/film List / Legal Fictions / Repairing the System

Reading the slick new law novel The Neon Lawyer ( persuades me that that recent law school grads might well think that law is the most embarrassing profession.

Consider, first, the reaction of peers. Imagine a newly minted lawyer meeting someone he or she hopes might become a friend. In the flow of conversation, the lawyer mentions his or her profession. The interlocutor responds with a small enigmatic smile and the comment. “How interesting!” Think of the following meanings the neophyte lawyer might reasonably attribute to that comment: a) “Greedy bastard”; b) “ How dumb can you be to rack up 100k in debt for guaranteed unemployment?”; c )“About as interesting as brushing your teeth;” or d) “All of the above.”

And then consider the embarrassment of sending out your CV to about 300 firms who you know receive about 300 CVs a day that bear a striking resemblance to your own. And if you do finally get paid employment (it happens) and get to represent a flesh and blood client (less likely), you face the embarrassment of recognizing the chasm between the skills you learned in law school and what is necessary to provide competent legal representation. And if you fail to recognize your incompetence, your senior colleagues in the profession, especially judges, will feel it their duty to make your aware of it.

But maybe the greatest embarrassment is trying to explain to experienced practitioners why you feel that a lawyer has a duty to do everything possible to help the client, even things that don’t make much economic sense.

The Neon Lawyer’s hero Brigham Theodore, suffers all these indignities and more in the comic tale Victor Methos tells of the psychological trials of starting a legal career. But Theodore also discovers that once you learn to take your profession and yourself seriously, the practice of law has its satisfactions, including the gratitude of clients who know you are really trying to help them and the sudden realization that law school provided you analytical skills that permit you to fashion some very creative and persuasive arguments.

The Neon Lawyer is meant to be a quick read—tracing the transformation of its naïve, idealistic protagonist from disillusioned law student to effective advocate. The plot and characters resemble John Grisham’s The Rainmaker in perhaps too many ways, but I think there is always room for one more story of the underdog coming out on top.

Even though the book is very funny, it also takes a critical perspective on the contemporary legal system. The system is stacked in favor of status and wealth and not much concerned about ensuring that justice is done to poor defendants. It’s this bureaucratic indifference rather than bad motives that threaten to put Theodore’s client Amanda Pierce behind bars for life.

But the legal outsider Theodore beats the insiders at their own game. Of course, a law story with a happy ending can always be faulted for not being “true,” but I think Methos has a good reason for telling a story that doesn’t often take place in real life. He’s trying to introduce his readers to another dimension of “truth”—“true” in the sense of “to your own self be true.”

A key scene in the novel is when Theodore’s “outlaw” lawyer boss, Tommy Lenin, proposes an unconventional barroom “toast” — “Here’s to hopefully.” Young Brigham lifts his glass, but has no idea what the toast means. But by the end of the novel Lenin’s meaning is crystal clear. Lawyers who represent the society’s underdogs need a sense of hope as much as they need skill. I mean “hope” in the sense of “hopefully we will draw a sympathetic judge.”

Let’s face it. If you can’t imagine a possibility of “winning” in the sense of improving your client’s situation, you are probably not doing yourself or the client a favor by moving forward. The necessary first step is getting to “hopefully.” Once Brigham starts to think of moves that have a realistic hope of succeeding, good things start to happen for both him and his client. Fighting, and perhaps losing, battles you believe in sometimes makes more sense than winning ones you don’t.

“To Hopefully.”

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