Not as Dramatic as it Tries to Be: A Book Review of Double Billing: A Young Lawyer's Tale Of Greed, Sex, Lies, And The Pursuit Of A Swivel Chairby Cameron Stracher
Double Billingis a memoir by a Harvard Law graduate who spent a few years in the 1990’s as an associate at a large (fictionalized) law firm in New York City. I bought this book for my fiance’s father, who enjoys legal thrillers by the likes of John Grisham. He had most recently been telling me about Grisham’s book The Associate. So, I thought, here’s a bird’s eye view into the world of a first year associate at a large law firm, a true story told by the former associate himself. The cover looked intriguing and mentioned the usual exciting suspects: greed, sex, and lies (although I wasn’t sure what the pursuit of a swivel chair part was all about).
After my fiance’s father read it, I decided to as well, because it seemed timely. I was working at the local office of a large law firm where I wasn’t happy. I thought that reading this book would help in a “misery loves company” kind of way. (Disclosure: By now I work at a small civil law firm, where I am much happier, so I am biased!)
The contents of Double Billing, however, not only disappointed me but, more often than not, annoyed me. I found the writing to be mediocre and the narrator to be self-indulgent. At some points I wondered if it was the author’s intention to upset the reader, because the book contained some sexist and racist comments, as well as downright condescending ones, such as this little gem:
“In the hierarchy of criminal practitioners, federal prosecutors are at the top, state prosecutors at the bottom . . . In the civil bar, personal injury lawyers—those who handle “slip and fall” cases—are at the bottom; lawyers at large firms who represent major clients are at the top . . . If you asked a personal injury lawyer whether he considered himself at the bottom of the civil law food chain, he would probably deny it and protest vigorously. On the other hand, his denials would have a strong whiff of defensiveness.”
I wondered what made the narrator think he knew so much about the practice of law when it came to making such blasé comments, when throughout the book, he makes a big deal out of the fact that he knows nothing about being an associate at a big law firm. (When given a document review assignment, he lies to a senior associate about having done one before, messes the process up due to his own ignorance, and then remarks, “There was no course called Document Production at Harvard. No one explained ‘Bates stamping’ or making multiple copies or reproducing file labels or sitting in a warehouse sweating your ass off.”) He also comes off as extremely immature at times, and almost disrespectful. (“We drove to the hearing in White Plains in [a partner] Caroline’s Lexus. On the drive back to the office, I drew stick figures on the air-conditioned window while Caroline spoke to [another partner] Eric on the car phone.”)
Having worked at a large and a mid-sized law firm, I had a pretty good idea what Stracher was writing about. Granted, I never worked—-and know by now that I wouldn’t want to work—-as an associate at a large law firm in New York City, but I have had many similar experiences as Stracher. He spends the first few months with little to no work, supposedly reading law review articles all day, which in my experience means you are either lazy or that the partners find you undesirable and you will eventually find your way to the door, by yourself or with an escort. After awhile, however, he does pick up some work, mainly a lot of document review and some discovery requests and responses, which is pretty typical of first year associate work. He even gets to help with a trial, which is a rare experience for a new associate that he at different points in the book appears to appreciate and take for granted.
Much of Double Billingcame off as whiny to me, and perhaps I have been numbed by the corporate law firms to which I sold my soul, but I don’t think anything he described was that bad. For one thing, as far as his rant about document production goes, paralegals have done the "bates stamping and multiple copying and reproducing file labels" work at all three of the firms where I have worked, and I can only imagine a large law firm having even more support staff on hand for these types of tasks. The “lies” he mentions are basically instructing a witness not to speculate about a situation if he or she doesn’t remember what was said or done, and playing discovery “games” with the other side by stalling or objecting before producing important documents. These situations and others have bothered me at various points in my career, but, as Stracher pointed out, that’s the way that practicing law sometimes works, and nothing that he saw violated the law or any professional or ethical rules. He also talks about partners giving busy work and tasks that he himself views as unnecessary to associates so that the firm can keep billing as many hours as possible. This complaint also has merit, but one person’s “busy work” is something another person deems necessary, and I wanted Stracher to deal with these important issues in a better way than casually mentioning them and then moving on.
As far as “sex” goes, there was little to none, and certainly not enough for a book that has the word in its subtitle. One of Stracher’s co-workers is secretly dating a paralegal. (How exciting.) More puzzling to me are Stracher’s sporadic mentions of his own personal life, without ever letting the reader in to the whole story. The book starts when he’s out to dinner with his girlfriend, having just passed the Bar, and ends when his girlfriend finally persuades him to change jobs. In the middle, there are random mentions of times when he has to cancel plans with her or leave her lonely at home because he has to work so much, and other times when she nags him to change jobs and stop working so much. Apparently they had been together for quite awhile and I kept waiting for some detail into their relationship beyond this surface level, and especially for resolution one way or the other-—a marriage proposal or a break up—-but there was none. I was left wondering why he even brought the girlfriend into the book at all.
And the swivel chair in the sub-title? Another disappointment. The entire story can be summed up as: his chair broke and he had to put in a request with the office manager, which was last on her list because he was a lowly associate and not a partner, and eventually, right before he quit, he got his chair. This plot line about sums up the excitement contained in the book as a whole.
If you are an attorney who has worked at a large firm before, or probably any sized civil firm, you will be able to relate to many parts of this book. At some points I was like, “Oh, yeah, exactly,” but other times I was bored because it was so commonplace. If you aren’t an attorney, but are interested in legal books, movies, TV shows, etc., you may like the insider’s view that this book presents. My fiance’s father liked it and it gave us some good conversation material, such as billable hours and different types of attorneys and areas of practice, etc. The book is definitely an easy and fast read. I wonder, though, if some of the legal mumbo jumbo may be confusing or frustrating to non-attorneys. The way that Stracher tries to describe legal issues was pretty annoying to me, full of dramatic language and unnecessary capitalization. (“Imagine: you’re the General Counsel of a Very Big Corporation that has just been sued by an Extremely Nasty Corporation for Unimaginable Injuries.”)
I assume that the intended audience of Double Billingis the general public—-readers who want to know what it’s like to be a young, big wig attorney at a large law firm. On that premise, this book does deliver, although I think the entire “spend a lot of hours doing seemingly useless work, until you can pay back your law school loans and go in-house” spiel could have been told with a lot more excitement.
I recommend this for people who are in law school or thinking about going to law school because in my opinion it gives a realistic portrayal of being a junior associate at a big law firm. The problem is that those big law firms are boring and stuffy, so the book is a little bit like that, too. Still, I think many people go into good law schools (and a lot of debt) with a lot of ambition and high hopes, only to find out that they must sell their souls to large law firms to be able to pay for their education, and this is not the kind of work or the kind of environment they had in mind when they signed up for the gig in the first place. A bit depressing, really, but also remember that not all law firms/ law jobs are like that. In my opinion this book seems to accurately depict large, big-city law firm life. To that I can only say "blah" -- to the idea and to the book!
Rating: I give this book two and a half stars -- I didn't really like it but some people might and it's not absolutely horrible.
Read: March – April, 2009
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