If you want facts, go to Wikipedia; for truth sometimes you have to read a novel. All the traditional differences that divide Democrats and Republicans are there in Lawrence Joseph’s non-fiction novel Lawyerland– plus an important new truth neither Hillary or Donald ever bothered to mention.
I am talking about the book’s chapter “Cerriere’s Answer” which features two New York labor lawyers showing us “what lawyers really talk about when they talk about law.” One is Martha Tharaud, the lead partner in a boutique firm that represents employees with grievances against their employers. The other, Robert Cerriere, is a young partner in the employment law department of an old line Wall Street firm.
Labor and management lawyers are known for not much liking one another, and Tharaud and Cerriere fit that description to perfection. At first it doesn’t seem like a fair fight. Martha is a member of the profession’s aristocracy whose representation of the downtrodden is legendary. Robert, on the other hand, is only a upwardly mobile drone in a giant organization.
Still Robert proves himself be an able adversary. He sees Martha as more cynic than saint, reaping big fees by filing lawsuits against corporations that view them only as minor costs of doing business. She pretends to be the workers’ savior, but actually is just one more lawyer angling for a fee. At least Robert is more honest about his motives. Martha in turn dismisses Robert’s professional role as “teaching corporations how to fire people.” Her disdain for him is palpable.
But it’s at the end of their conversation that things really get interesting. Martha has been needling Robert about the employer practices he defends. When he suggests that the settlement she attained in a sexual harassment case against a client of his firm was a “nuisance” suit, she wonders aloud whether he would feel the same way if the victim had been his own management consultant wife . What if one of her superiors suddenly asks her “what color her panties are?” What if this same “nice fellow” later inquires if she gets “moist between her legs when she’s around him. ” Nuisance suit? Robert is silent.
But Martha’s comments about a young worker mopping the floor of the upscale cafe where they are meeting finally gives Robert an opening. Martha rhetorically asks “Do you wonder what that young man’s life is like?” But before she can paint her picture of innocence under perpetual fear of unemployment and deportation, Robert gives us another take on the situation.
He starts by moving the discussion from Martha’s morality tales of employer abuse to bulletins from the “real world.” “A Bosnia Serb forced a Muslim prisoner to bite off the testicles of another prisoner who wouldn’t stop screaming. Well, he stopped screaming. Don’t cringe, Martha. It’s the real world.”
Then Cerriere situates Martha’s young man in the “real world” economy. He suggests the young man might be a Brazilian or a Honduran; in either case, most likely an illegal. “You think Mop Boy wants to go back to Honduras? What happens to a mop boy in Honduras? Look at him– he’s eating an apple Danish and drinking a latte.”
“Mop boy”, like all of us, must fit into the “real world” economy. Technology has transformed the world into a vortex of endless innovation. Industries bloom and become obsolete in a generation. “Everything is up for grabs.” And the people with the knowledge and intelligence to do so are grabbing whatever they can get. That’s the ethic of the “real world.”
In Robert’s telling, the world economy has morphed into a game of musical chairs with one difference; the chairs are no longer allotted by chance. Instead they go to the workers with the most marketable skills, a metric that correlates closely with race and class. How will “Mopboy” do in that competition?
Or, more btoadly, how will most workers fare as technology gets smarter and the number of workers needed smaller? Maybe Robert was anticipating this recent article on lawyers and automation on the website Legal Productivity. http://www.legalproductivity.com/featured/much-lawyers-worry-automation/ It appears that lawyers’ much prized analytical skills no longer protect them from competition with computers. Martha’s lawsuits won’t be of much help to workers who never get hired.
Like a skilled short story writer, Joseph ends the chapter with Robert’s bombshell. Martha does not reply. Robert is not defending the morality of the scenario he describes; perhaps he deplores it. He only insists it is the present reality and likely to continue. It’s also the professional arena that shapes how Martha and Robert talk when they talk about law.
I must admit that to my ears Robert’s tale has the ring of truth, a truth that both Hillary and Donald ignored last Fall as each sketched his or her own upbeat picture of the future.
They say ‘You can’t stop progress!” But what some call “progress” others may see as a form of social suicide. Maybe it’s time for a new “real world.”