By Kermit Roosevelt

Farrar Straus Giroux. 370 pp. $24

Many lawyers write novels these days, often good novels, but I've never before come across one like Kermit Roosevelt's "In the Shadow of the Law." It is not a thriller or a courtroom drama; indeed, its plot is its weakest point. Rather, Roosevelt's first novel is an extended meditation -- readable, informed, sophisticated, often devastating -- on lawyers and the law. And because Roosevelt, who now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, was once a Supreme Court clerk and a practicing attorney in Washington, and because he focuses on a big, powerful, supremely avaricious K Street law firm, this book could arouse more than passing interest among local lawyers.

The novel opens with two brief scenes. In the first, a man is arrested for murder in Virginia. In the second, a chemical plant blows up in Texas, killing several employees. Setting the tone for what follows, an official of the chemical plant, learning of the disaster, orders that the first people called should not be emergency-response teams but the company's lawyers, the K Street firm of Morgan Siler. These two cases provide such plot as the novel offers, as a young Morgan Siler associate works pro bono to try to save the Virginia man from the death penalty and a team of the firm's lawyers tries to save the chemical plant's corporate owners from paying damages for gross negligence.

The two cases fade into the background, however, as Roosevelt undertakes a leisurely introduction of the men and women, the partners and associates, of Morgan Siler. We start with Peter Morgan, son of the firm's late founder and now its undisputed ruler. Roosevelt draws an acidulous portrait of a man who lives for money and power. In one wry scene, Morgan finds himself side by side with an associate in the men's room. "What are you thinking about?" he asks. The terrified young man says, "Work." To which his boss replies, "Bill it." This is a recurring theme: that the $125,000-a-year associates are essentially factory workers driven mercilessly to produce more and more billable hours. Morgan, we learn, hates pro bono work because it costs him money, and when possible he assigns summer associates to death-penalty cases on the theory that if they are incompetent, it won't matter. His pragmatism extends to his wife of many years, as he begins to think of his marriage as just another contract to be terminated.

We see in flashbacks that Morgan's very different father, who started the firm in the 1930s, was an idealist. In the 1960s, he was shocked by the "growing rapacity of the investment banks." He believed that "takeovers were something no self-respecting lawyer would touch." It took a rebellion by his partners, guided by his son, to bring the old man into the anything-for-a-buck modern legal world. Roosevelt offers a more sympathetic, rags-to-riches portrait of Harold Fineman, the firm's first Jewish partner. He is a relentless litigator ("His basic thesis had been that everyone was an enemy") who comes to grief when he takes his mind off the law: "God in Heaven, thought Harold. I'm falling in love. What else can go wrong?"

The heart of the novel is Roosevelt's detailed portrait of four of the firm's young associates. Mark Clayton, first glimpsed "at the customary point in his day when panic gave way to resignation," is struggling to make sense of the Virginia death-penalty case. Ryan Grady spends a lot of time wandering the firm's hallways to become better known and is tormented by his inability to pick up women in Georgetown bars. Katja Phillips is smart and dedicated, but her beauty has a destabilizing effect on her male colleagues. She is also relatively high-minded. For a while, she was working on a case wherein an automobile's defective gas tank caused a family of four to be burned alive: "The family barbecue, the lawyers had called it, which was about the point Katja decided that maybe litigation wasn't for her." The most brilliant of the associates, Walker Eliot, a former Supreme Court clerk, loves the law ("the law itself, in its pureness and intricacy") but is bored by its practice. In a flashback, we see him as a clerk, glorying in his intimacy with his justice and the delegated power he wields -- and aware that life will never again be as sweet.

Roosevelt's takes on the law are endlessly quotable: "You're not supposed to get work done. You're supposed to bill hours"; "If you ever wonder what lawyers make, they make other lawyers necessary"; "Law is the license to be always in the right . . . law means never having to say you're sorry"; "You can have the best case in the world, but I can still make things very difficult for you"; "Law is what happens when you have no other plans"; "Smart, efficient people aren't meant for law firms; they just make the rest of us look bad"; "They warn you that law will divide you from your family, your friends, your hobbies. He had avoided this by having none. But no one tells you that it will divide you from yourself."

In the second half of the book, the plot becomes more visible, and in the final pages Roosevelt wraps things up with a series of surprises: a death, a divorce, dark secrets revealed, a budding romance. But you don't read this novel for plot. You read it for its panoramic, sometimes loving, sometimes caustic, always fascinating view of the legal world. Young people considering the law could read "In the Shadow of the Law" for its cautionary value. Those already in the profession might find it amusing -- or outrageous or painfully accurate -- and some might wonder whether to laugh or cry.