Thursday, June 15, 2006

Book Review: Anonymous Lawyer

I finished reading Jeremy Blachman's Anonymous Lawyer and here is my opinion:


I never found the Anonymous Lawyer blog, which purported to be from the point of view of a hiring partner at a big Los Angeles firm, very interesting or funny. The book is about as amusing as the blog; I laughed occasionally, but usually at some one-off joke like a funny name Anonymous Lawyer gave his colleague, not because I thought any of the insights about living la vida law firm were funny. The thinly veiled stand-in for Blachman himself was obvious and intrusive, especially when he attempted to justify his decision to become a musician after law school. I've already said what I think of that.

Still, the book made me laugh out loud a few times and I kept reading. This was my mistake. After cruising along for a while on anecdotes and over-the-top shock humor about workplace suicides and murderous plots to eliminate in-firm rivals, Blachman decides he needs to resolve the plot. Up until this point, that plot basically consists of the Anonymous Lawyer really wanting to beat his rival, The Jerk, in the competition to become chairman of the firm. Why he would want this is anyone's guess. One of the book's targets is the idea of pursuing prestige for its own sake, but this doesn't work when the prestigious position is fantastical and absurd.

Here is where the whole things goes off the rails as all of the characters suddenly begin to act in inexplicable ways that do not flow from anything we've been told before but do have the coincidental effect of moving the plot along to a hurried and artificial conclusion. (Spoilers below, for those of you who care.)
AL gets passed over and vows to take down The Jerk. An associate at his firm who has read his blog and discerned his identity contacts him and says she has evidence that The Jerk has been skimming money. She claims to feel threatened by how The Jerk is shaking up things at the firm and eventually agrees to help AL in exchange for being made partner upon his ascendance to the chairmanship (I found it completely unbelievable that he would have been able to do this, which made her trust illogical). She needs more proof, but coincidentally is a femme fatale and has a preexisting romantic relationship with the one person who can provide them with this evidence.

This person, who we can assume from his professional position is both savvy and intelligent, takes the unimaginably stupid action of writing down how he helped The Jerk steal money; he does this because a hot woman asked him to. When the plan fails and AL is not made Chairman, the femme fatale rats him out, for no reason that I can discern other than the fact that it allowed the firm to find out about both the attempted coup and AL's blog. The only thing I can compare this to is the last few chapters of The Firm, where we are suddenly hit with a whole bunch of nonsensical crap about stealing money and then the characters escape to the Caribbean.

Blachman is not entirely unfunny, but he fails to make his characters act in a rational or even believable way. The plot just plain doesn't work, and we don't really care at the end because all the characters, even AL, are cardboard cutouts who crack jokes or are the butt of them.

A substantive criticism: As at least one other person has noted, the satirized view of firms in this book doesn't really work because it's fundamentally tone-deaf and lacks actual knowledge of how firms operate. It hits the easy targets: Firms are nice to you while you're a summer associate and then make you work a lot! Lawyers are less charismatic than businessmen! Firms play bait-and-switch with people who think they're going to make partner! But on some counts, and at least one of them is reused relentlessly throughout the book, it's just dead wrong, and therefore not funny or pointed. That would be the relationship between lawyers and support staff.

Of all the people I've met in the last few years who have worked in law firms, only one had ever heard of an attorney throwing something at another person. Good legal secretaries are valued, and in some cases are more valued than associates. In a world where support staff can sue for the unbearable fact that they must to listen to a partner swear at third parties on the phone, Blachman's characterizations are jarringly off the mark and don't constitute effective satire.
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