What Lawyers Talk About

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Book/film List

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.”


  1. I just may have to read that book for a trip back into my law practice where my attitude was pretty close to Martha’s. But I don’t think the two viewpoints are mutually exclusive. There’ll always be employees who are taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers, even employees who are smart, quick and prepared for the new reality. The author of that novel may be just playing with our lawyerly mind.


  2. Ken Donnelly says

    Regardless of his legal status and graditude for his position Mopboy is nevertheless being exploited.


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