Excerpt of In the Shadow of the Law

Winner of the Philadelphia Athenaeum Literary Award and a Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the Year


September 18, 2000 Washington, 7:00 a.m.

Every weekday morning at seven o’clock a powerful black car made its way through the Georgetown traffic to a redbrick house. For fifteen minutes it waited outside the door for the occupant of the house to emerge. Peter Morgan kept it waiting because he could, and he wanted the driver to know that. He did it for precisely fifteen minutes every day because, in addition, he wanted the driver to know that he knew.

Peter Morgan’s mornings did not dare to vary from his routine. The soft glow of a progressively luminous alarm clock cajoled him from slumber; the aroma of coffee brewed by an automatic espresso machine drew him from between the smooth white sheets of his bed. With a fond glance at his sleeping wife’s soft swell, he alit and padded to the scalding benison of a high-pressure shower. Beneath its steaming pulse he shaved with a wet/dry electric razor before stepping forth into a plush cotton robe. A fog-free mirror held his image while he applied costly unguents to his body, his face, his head. He dressed inside a closet. Fifteen suits were arrayed on the cedar rails, a crisp army of shirts, a bright artillery of ties, and below, a battalion of shoes like dragons’ teeth. Breakfast, a sop to the doctors, was half a grapefruit and two crusts of penitent’s toast, the espresso like a song in his blood.

This morning, diverging from the pattern, he was out the door precisely at seven. Today he felt too eager to take any pleasure in making others wait for him. Today there was a meeting of the steering committeeof the firm. Of course, he could make even them wait if he chose, wait a virtually indefinite time, since they were powerless to act without him. They were powerful men in their own right, and had Peter Morgan been less accustomed to command, he might have been tempted to that sort of extravagant display. But there was no need. He could make them wait if he chose; he knew it; they knew it; and he knew they knew he knew. Peter Morgan realized that things were seldom this simple in life, truths seldom so unitary, but he was the managing partner, son of the firm’s founder, Archibald Morgan, and for him, they were.

Morgan Siler occupied thirteen floors of a large building on K Street. Other businesses shared the space–a consulting firm, some lobbyists–but Morgan was the dominant presence. Peter walked through the lobby, heels clicking on the marble floor, and absorbed with half-conscious majesty the greetings of the security guards. An elevator bore him upward. The steering committee would be meeting on the top floor, which held the firm’s conference rooms, but Peter stopped first on the twelfth. He needed to pass by his office to gather some papers, but he wanted also to make his morning rounds, check on the inhabitants of his fiefdom.

Most of the office doors on his floor were closed, which was to be expected. A few were canted slightly inward, their occupants’ attempt to suggest that they had already arrived at work and were simply being industrious at some other location: the library, the records center. This displeased Peter, who liked certainty. He did not see the need for associates’ offices to have doors; indeed, he did not see why associates needed offices at all. He would have preferred them to work at computer stations on an open floor, or in transparent cubicles, their every act circumscribed by the rigid intelligence of time and motion studies. But the law had yet to find its Frederick Taylor, and the recruiting committee had advised him that moving associates into cubicles would hurt hiring efforts.

Failing a wholesale reorganization, Peter had more than once considered instructing the night cleaning shift to lock each office, instead of leaving the doors as they were found. But this posed the risk of shutting out those who were actually working late and had made a run to the library or the all-night deli in the lobby. It was better to let ten guilty go free than to punish one innocent, lawyers were told. Peter Morgan had invokedthis maxim frequently, though he remained agnostic as to its truth. He did believe, however, that it was a wrong of the first order to interfere with the productivity of associates burning the midnight oil, and he knew that the chicanery of those who simulated early mornings would lead to nothing. Leaving the door open didn’t bill any hours, and at the year’s end, part Santa Claus, part Minos, Peter Morgan would judge his flock on the basis of how many hours their time sheets had recorded.

A few doors, Peter saw, were flung wide, the inhabitants of their offices basking in the cool early-morning glow of the computer screen. A soft tide of contentment loosened his belly at the sight of these dutiful souls; his patrician features softened. They were making money for him, true; each hour an associate billed returned a fixed sum to the firm, generating profits to be shared among the partners. But Peter felt a more fraternal warmth. He too had been an associate once, punching the same clock, running the same treadmill, and he remembered the satisfaction of noting down the hours, tabulating his worth. His diligence had made him a partner, and for some of the young lawyers working away this Monday morning, it would do the same. Coming up on the last open door before his corner office, he paused and flashed an avuncular grin. “Good morning,” said Peter Morgan. Without waiting for a response, he continued on his way.

Mark Clayton was at the customary point in his day when panic gave way to resignation. His office was small, smaller even than the norm for first-year associates, but a compensatory window offered a partially obstructed view of downtown Washington. Once this had seemed cause for optimism, as his sensible gray suits and framed diplomas had seemed confirmation of his place in the professional world. Both now struck him differently, the suits a poor camouflage, the diplomas almost a silent rebuke.
Mark was twenty-six. He had placid brown eyes and dark hair that rose in alarmed clusters if not carefully tended. He had a degree in political science from Rutgers and one in law from Penn. And he had a growing sense that at some time in the recent past he had made a crucial mistake whose effects were now, irrevocably, emerging.

His current assignment substantiated the impression. Like most of his work, it was a case he’d been switched on to after the associate initiallyassigned had left. For a while he had wondered what happened to those people, who had left only initials studding billing records and memos in the file to prove they had ever existed. Now he did not wonder; he simply envied them. Whatever they were doing, they no longer had to worry about whether the odor of rotten eggs could count as a product defect sufficient to void a contract.

Mark did. One of the firm’s clients had ordered natural gas from a Canadian supplier only to find that, as required by Canadian law, the gas was infused with sulfides for safety reasons. A neighborhood near the client’s plant now smelled like a Halloween prank, and outraged homeowners were threatening suit.

The assignment was to write a memo detailing the ways in which the client could refuse to accept the remaining supply. An evening of research had yielded nothing, and the fresh start the morning had promised was turning up more of the same. Worse, he was nearing the end of the ten hours he’d been told to dedicate to the project. Partners gave instructions like that, he was beginning to believe, simply out of spite. Unable to finish the project in the allotted time, an associate had three choices. He could confess his failure and appear stupid, or underreport the hours he’d actually worked during the day, which would knock down his billable total and make him appear shiftless. Or he could spend early mornings and late nights at work, in order to shave down the hours for that particular project and still meet his billable target for the day.

Mark tended to choose the third option. In his heart he knew this was a self-defeating ruse, since it had earned him a reputation for efficiency that required ever-later nights to maintain. And now sleep deprivation was robbing him of whatever focus he’d been able to bring to the work; more seriously, it was stealing the acuity required for day-to-day life. His mornings were perilous: an intemperate blast from the unpredictable shower, brutal hand-to-hand combat with the razor, precious minutes repairing the most visible damage. He couldn’t understand how people found the time for hygiene. Doubtless some were cutting corners; he himself had begun to wash only on alternate days, or when time permitted. He could feel his body softening from lack of exercise, and in its spreading flesh and unaccustomed smells he saw the transformation worked by the operation of law. He was becoming something else.

Now, with his freshly dry-cleaned shirt already soggy against his sides and his face burning from the razor’s metallic kiss, he was confronting the fact that despite his machinations, he was most likely going to end up with a full ten hours on the time sheet and nothing good to tell the partner in charge. The prospect had once been terrifying, but now the fear was fading and he was beginning to feel the onset of despair.

The transition point was not a bad moment, but it had been coming earlier and earlier, sometimes before he even made it into the office, and that was starting to disturb him. He’d grown used to a particular pattern of emotions arriving as the workday progressed, but now they were packing themselves closer and closer together, as though his emotional life were accelerating while the rest of it maintained the same plodding place. Initially, he’d woken with a sense of excitement, the new job beckoning like the big football games of high school. Those had tended toward anticlimax, involving chiefly a period of waiting until the outcome was sufficiently removed from doubt for his name to be called. Now, likewise, he sat at his desk for long hours while the day’s excitement dulled; then, usually mid afternoon, he’d realize how little he’d accomplished, how much there was to do, how outrageous it was that some poor slob was paying out one hundred and fifty dollars an hour for his fecklessness. Then the panic would start. Finally, toward evening, after an afternoon spent in futile attempts to justify his salary, he’d resign himself to the fact that today was not the day he came up with a case-breaking insight, found some overlooked and pivotal authority, turned around a losing cause. Instead it was a day he spent six hours poring over numbingly boring FCC reports only to find he’d been researching the wrong section of the Telecommunications Act, a day he realized he’d been charging his time to the wrong client number and spent four hours trying to pull the records from the depths of the computer system.

Still, it had been a routine, something he thought he could get used to. Or at least the sort of thing one was supposed to get used to. But then the excitement was crowded out, as panic began to hit him in the mornings, or sometimes in his dreams. Despair was the noontime respite, a signal that it was time to grab lunch. That schedule had held for four months, but now the panic was fleeting and his days consisted largely of boredom and low-grade melancholy. Sometimes, staring blankly at an assignment as the unrecoverable hours trickled by, he felt that he wanted to cry; more frequently he felt he wanted something worth crying for. He wasn’t making as many stupid mistakes as he used to, but given the character of his work, he was astonished that he’d made as many as he had.Back when there’d been periods of satisfaction in the days, when he’d conquered the panic and gone on to actually produce something–bang out a memo, rearrange a file drawer, it didn’t matter what–he’d thought that each day was a microcosm of what the future had to offer: a period of adjustment, then long solid years of productive work. Now that they were simply tedium, he was growing increasingly confident that he’d been right. This was what time held in store, patient and unrelenting. The prospect earned Mark a stab of dread. He smiled at the variety, then began one more pass through the oil and gas case reporters on the chance that he’d missed something.

It was at that moment that Peter Morgan’s leonine profile passed down the hallway, that his head made a brief turn to address Mark’s office, that the morning greeting fell from his lips.

Mark jerked upright in his chair, banging his knee on the underside of his desk and simultaneously giving a solid kick to the PC hard drive nestled beneath it. Recovering his balance, he knocked a mugful of coffee onto the papers in his lap. “Oh, fuck,” he said. He lifted the papers, letting the coffee they’d not yet absorbed slide onto his pants, and cursed again.

“Good morning,” another voice said.

Mark raised imploring eyes. Katja Phillips slowed her progress past his door long enough to give him a look of amused concern and walked on, wringing water from her black hair. Katja lived across the river in Arlington, and as often as she could she ran to work, passing the commuters stuck on Key Bridge. Through car windows the drivers watched her, but Katja didn’t notice. She had trained herself in obliviousness from an early age, and law school had taught her the costs of distraction. She watched only the sidewalk in front of her as she ran, moving forward, turning up M Street and into Georgetown, her feet pounding past the bars and restaurants and clothing stores until the world of retail and leisure gave way to the coffee shops and corporate enclaves of downtown Washington.
The building had a single shower, adjacent to what the firm called the nap room and the lawyers called the Morgan Hotel, a windowless office equipped with three cots and an alarm clock. In the event of an allnighter, it allowed lawyers a few hours’ respite without the inefficiency ofreturning home or the indignity of sleeping under their desks. Also, more rarely, it was a place for nervous breakdowns, where employees could rock and moan in relative privacy. Katja occasionally encountered people making one or the other use of the place as she showered and changed into her business attire, but this morning it was vacant, and she passed through its dimness with bright-eyed good humor, ready to start her day.

She always felt better after running, more alert, more confident, more capable of meeting whatever challenges the world might throw in her path. The routine limited her fashion options–she kept three suits at the office and usually skipped the run in favor of a bus at least once a week, giving her four–but Katja was a bottom-liner. A morning run made for a more productive day, and Katja had always believed that productivity was the ultimate metric.

Her two years at Morgan Siler had not changed that belief, but she sometimes found herself wondering what exactly it was that she was producing. Countless memos, various contracts and agreements created largely by exhuming their predecessors and changing appropriate names, dates, and dollar amounts, and, during her brief stint in the litigation department, some fragments of briefs arguing one or another point of law too esoteric or tangential to attract the interest of anyone more senior. That was one way of looking at it. Some quarter of a million dollars for the coffers of Morgan Siler–that was another. And from the last perspective, which she tended to adopt only late at night, in times of extreme fatigue or unrest, she had produced … what?

Hours, that was the answer. She had produced hours. Katja had gone to law school, in the crisp and distant air of Ann Arbor, because she thought it would give her a challenging career, because medicine and banking and consulting hadn’t interested her. There are three different kinds of jobs in the world, a law school professor had told her civil procedure class their first day. There are people who make things, people who buy and sell those things, and people who provide the intellect and the analysis that make everything else possible. You will be that last group. You will be the lawyers.

That had sounded good to Katja. She had no interest in buying and selling. There was a certain nobility and satisfaction to making things, tangible creations, laying the stamp of order upon the stuff of chaos, but in the end, asked what she made, she would rather answer: I make it all possible. She had said this to herself a few times, toward the beginning ofthe job, once to shut up an investment banker talking salaries on a forgettable blind date, and not since then. For the fact was that it simply wasn’t true. It might have been in the halcyon days about which her professors reminisced, though none of them had spent more than a year in the world of practice; it might still be for the partners. But for the young associates, law was industrialized. They were assembly-line workers, and what they made was time. Torts, contracts, antitrust cases came through the doors of the firm, and associates took these raw materials and turned them into hours.

Katja didn’t mind. She was good at her job. She had the brains and, more important, the stamina. Partners appreciated her diligence and reliability; with increasing frequency they would stop by her office with assignments, and always the same request: Can you make some time for me? Katja pushed back her hair and got to work. She wasn’t a sprinter, and she knew it, but she could clock ten hours a day without breaking a sweat. In at eight, an hour for lunch, out the door by seven, with a little luck. Any later and she could order dinner on the client and take a firm car back to Arlington, but Katja was making an effort to spend enough waking hours outside the office that she didn’t begin thinking of it as home. Today that would be a challenge; she’d been given the task of revising a master loan agreement to take account of the addition of several new lenders. Katja pulled the documents together on the desk and turned on her computer. She surveyed the contents of her office with a nod that was almost a greeting: a plant on the table and on the walls two diplomas and a Chagall print. She took an elastic band from her pocket, tied back her damp hair, and took a deep breath. The clock was ticking.

Copyright © 2005 by Kermit Roosevelt