Let me start this book review with a confession: when I first heard that Jeremy Blachman nabbed a contract to bring his Anonymous Lawyer (AL) blog to the printed page, I didn’t have high hopes. While I read the AL Blog before Jeremy outed himself, I can’t say that I was a huge fan; as an egomaniacal blogger myself, I had mixed feelings about my blogging colleagues who didn’t have the nerve to back up their thoughts with their identity (though I was wrong that anonymous bloggers don’t get book deals!). And I wasn’t all that impressed with the idea of an expose on biglaw. Seemed to me that it had been done before, in books like Cameron’s Stracher’s mediocre Double Billing and a bunch of different short stories I’d seen in bar magazines over the years, where the protaganists realize they’re wasting their life at biglaw and and decide to leave the law entirely or to seek employment in some public service oriented position like government or a legal aid group (never solo practice, but that’s just my own personal gripe).
So I was hugely surprised that Blachman’s novel, Anonymous Lawyer, was a far better book than I ever expected, one that in my view will endure as a classic in the law profession genre of novels, along with books like The Paper Chase (with its iconic Professor Kingsfield) and to a lesser extent, Scott Turow’s One-L. As my many blogging colleagues have pointed out, Blachman offers a scathing and hilarious inside view of partnership and taps into today’s blogging zeitgeist by using the blog and emails as narrative devices, all of which make for an enjoyable read in a format now familiar to many of us. But what gives the novel its staying power is its commentary on the modern day law firm. Just as existentialists like Albert Camus used their writings to probe the absurdity of the human condition during the 1930s and 1940s, Blachman’s Anonymous Lawyer conveys the utter absurdity of biglaw practice.
There’s not much to the plot; the book revolves around life at an anonymous biglaw firm during its summer associate program and AL’s campaign to ascend to the Top Dog position at his firm. AL’s blog entries paint a picture of the absurdity of biglaw life – the fifty dollar expense accounts for 22 year olds in law school, the lavish parties and picnics that no one really wants to attend, the stingy time off policies for holidays, the ruse of the “part time family balance programs.” AL’s matter of fact and unreflective tone evokes the flat voice of Mersault, who narrates Camus’ The Stranger. But AL’s not without opinions; in particular, he disdains his sad, overweight daughter (and fat people, generally) and his wife, who fritters his money on interior decoration and breast enhancement. (as an aside, someone ought to write a book about the plight of the law firm partner’s wife, addressing why so many competent women, many of them formerly attorneys themselves willingly sacrifice their careers to hitch themselves to their husband’s rising star as partner at a law firm and content themselves with being “a partner’s wife.”)
For me, where Anonymous Lawyer shines isn’t in the day to day description of the rat race of law firm life or the nasty cracks that AL makes about his partners and the ingratiating summer associates. The book moved me most at those rare times when AL lets down his guard with himself– in the pleasurable moments he shares catching snakes with his son, or during his realization at his high school class reunion that no one’s ever heard of his firm or impressed by where he works. For it’s there we see that AL hasn’t completely lost his soul, just repressed it almost irretrievably in the trappings of a fancy lifestyle and a pile of timesheets – and therein lies the tragedy.
As Camus writes in the Myth of Sisyphus:
The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.
Substitute “biglaw attorney” for workman and you encapsulate the
dynamic of the modern day law firm and the anonymous lawyers who inhabit that world.