Do real private detectives read detective novels? Do police officers read crime fiction? I wonder because, as a practicing attorney, I don’t usually read novels dealing with lawyers. Even when written by attorneys, story-telling seems to require shortcuts. Perhaps unnoticed by the average reader, those shortcuts can leave me incredulous, even infuriated. Although David Schmahmann’s Nibble & Kuhn also takes a few shortcuts, it doesn’t raise my ire as much because it’s clearly an irony-tinged look inside a large law firm.
While John Grisham’s novels are the equivalent of a big studio, blockbuster thriller, Nibble & Kuhn is more akin to an indie, light romantic comedy. It is told by Derek Dover, who is up for partnership in the Boston law firm Nibble & Kuhn. Reminiscent of Jonathan Harr’s nonfiction work, A Civil Action, one of the managing partners assigns him a lawsuit against a huge corporation for allegedly polluting a neighborhood swimming hole and causing cancer in seven children. Previously handled by a partner who is becoming a judge, Dover quickly learns the thousands and thousands of dollars in time and expenses invested in the case are nearly useless.
Personal and professional dilemmas form another storyline — Dover’s relationship with Maria Parma, a new associate in the firm. Although Parma tells Dover she is engaged to someone in Spain, he arranges for her to be assigned to assist with the case. While the backstory of her engagement is a stretch, the romance and the issues it creates have a real world touch. All this takes place as the law firm is “rebranding” itself (with the unfortunate name “Nibbles’) and completing an extravagant office building. This, of course, comes amidst a crumbling economy that leads many law firms to lay off staff and attorneys.
The book has other authentic rings. Dover is not a crusader, just a young litigation attorney who wants to do good and professional work. Yet as Schmahmann, himself a lawyer, points out, for many large metropolitan law firms, “courtrooms are mythic and abstract places. Nibble lawyers do not try cases. Nibble lawyers threaten to try cases, and then settle.” Dover can’t grasp why he’s been saddled with an important case that seemingly can’t be won — or settled. And although perhaps a bit stereotyped, the managing partners are idiosyncratic, haughty and increasingly distant from the regular practice of law, treating the firm more as “a money making machine with practicing law as a pretext.” Day-to-day authority tends to fall to non-lawyer administrators and the firm often seems run via autocratic memos.
Where Nibble & Kuhn lacks some authenticity is in and around the courtroom. For example, it is inconceivable a judge would learn at a Friday hearing, his first in a case, that he’s been assigned a month-long “toxic tort” trial that will begin Monday. Only in novels could the lawyers in such a case pick a jury and make opening statements in roughly two and a half hours.
Why does story-telling take precedence? As Dover observes, “Lawsuits, despite what one might see on television, aren’t that interesting.” That is especially true of pretrial conferences and jury selection. Still, the most important courtroom scene is the most unbelievable — and intentionally so. Not only is it essential to the novel’s heart and soul, you never see coming and it can’t help but prompt a huge grin, if not outright laughter.
Nibble & Kuhn won’t cause me to abandon my hesitancy to read legal novels. Yet at least Schmahmann lets us know his tongue is often firmly in cheek so that when he diverges from actual practice even those of us who notice can still chuckle at his look at litigation and law firm life.
(Tim Gebhart blogs about books, culture and issues at A Progressive on the Prairie.)