Fiction about the law is frustratingly hard to write. As any practitioner can tell you, just beneath the crust of dry technicalities and the fusty pomp and circumstance seethe all the important social issues, all the most riveting dramas of our society. They cry out to be written up. But dry technicalities pose a big problem. Without them, the story will be inauthentic and preposterous. (The recent movie "The Verdict" is a case in point.) Worse, the dry-as-dust detail is often the very warp and woof of the drama. Thus, a legal tale that leaves out or phonies up the technicalities is like free verse: tennis with the net down. On the other hand, a legal tale that tries to keep faith with the technicalities courts total incomprehensibility. After all, people go to law school for three years to get a handle on that stuff.
There are no perfect solutions, only compromises. One of the better ones is for the storyteller to try educating the reader subliminally, without the reader's noticing. For example, in John J. Osborn's "The Associates," a character remarks that he'll file a motion "under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure." The drawback here is that lawyers' actions usually presuppose sophistication. No lawyer would ever make a remark like Osborn's, because it goes literally without saying that a lawyer files motions under the rules of whatever court he or she is filing in.
Steven Phillips, a New York attorney who specializes in products-liability litigation, has chosen a more promising version of this tactic in "Civil Actions," a novel about his specialty. He educates the reader by following the education of his characters. All of them start out together in law school, and learn the law side by side; then, as they graduate and go their different ways, each discovers the sociology and the folkways of a different sort of practice. As they begin to think legal thoughts and follow professional usages, they draw on learning we have acquired along with them. This mostly obviates the necessity for silly "Federal Rules of Civil Procedure" lines, and equips the reader for the inevitable moment when the protagonists find themselves locked in combat over the Big Case.
It's a neat solution, particularly in light of the obvious English a storyteller can put on this ball, the as-the-twig-is-bent-so-grows-the-tree extrapolation of these youngsters' legal education to their later careers. Phillips manages it competently, though with all the predictability of the way Hollywood used to cast bomber crews. There's a trailblazing Midwestern woman, liberal and idealistic, who becomes a federal district judge, a bright young Jew from the Bronx, excluded from the big time by the anti-Semitism of Wall Street, a blue blood who finds his way effortlessly into politics and a scrappy, amoral go-getter who makes it to the top of the corporate heap.
Now comes the bad news. After all this labored and ingenious exposition, Phillips stumbles. It's no secret that Big Case tales have to wind up in the courtroom. That's the place where the truth will out, the setting for dramatic reversals, the ritual killing ground for villainy. But this Big Case, over a pill that raises the same wrenching legal issues as Agent Orange, fizzles as soon as it reaches the courts. The farthest it goes is a relatively dull motions hearing. The reader gets all dressed up and has nowhere to go.
In a different sort of book, this might not matter. In a chronicle of the psychological development of a generation of lawyers, a sort of collective Bildungsroman, the Big Case could be an incidental piece of machinery, as the thriller plot sometimes is in Conrad or Greene. But Phillips commands neither the style nor the power of characterization to work on that level. He is a knowledgeable attorney and a craftsmanlike writer of pop fiction. The trouble is that in pop fiction the Big Case must come off, and here it doesn't.
The only pet left for drama, therefore, is a series of poignant reversals in the characters' relationships. Between the go-getting corporate cad and the liberal idealist, for instance, lies the memory of a law review political dispute that he won and she lost. But by the end of the book, he's a white-collar crook, and she's a judge who knows he's guilty but feels that on principle she must testify as a character witness for him. As drama, this is pretty tepid, not fit for center stage, where Phillips puts it. I am certain that it started off in the wings, as a simple expedient to get over the technicalities hurdle. It should have stayed there.
In the end, therefore, "Civil Actions" lays claim to our attention mostly because of its technical accuracy. Lawyers who like to read accurate stories about themselves will probably enjoy it. The rest of us probably won't. Case, unfortunately, dismissed.