"And going from the transcendent to engrossing low-falutin entertainment, here's a book for your friends who like to devour legal thrillers like popcorn: The Color of Law by Mark Gimenez," writes critic Alan Cheuse in his annual holiday book roundup. "The novel is about a high-flying Dallas lawyer whom a federal judge calls upon to defend a black Dallas hooker accused of murdering the son of a Texas senator."
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Excerpt: Chapter One
What's the difference between a rattlesnake lying dead in the middle of a highway and a lawyer lying dead in the middle of a highway?" He paused. "There are skid marks in front of the snake."
His bar association audience responded with polite laughter and diplomatic smiles.
"Why did New Jersey get all the toxic waste dumps and California get all the lawyers?" He paused again. "Because New Jersey had first choice."
Less laughter, fewer smiles, a scattering of nervous coughs: diplomacy was failing fast.
"What do lawyers and sperm have in common?" He did not pause this time. "Both have a one-in-a-million chance of turning out human."
All efforts at diplomacy had ended. His audience had fallen deathly silent; a sea of stone faces stared back at him. The lawyers on the dais focused on their lunches, embarrassed by their guest speaker's ill-advised attempt at humor. He looked around the crowded room, as if stunned. He turned his palms up.
"Why aren't you laughing? Aren't those jokes funny? The public sure thinks those jokes are funny, damn funny. I can't go to a cocktail party or the country club without someone telling me a stupid lawyer joke. My friends, we are the butt of America's favorite jokes!"
He adjusted the microphone so his deep sigh was audible, but he maintained steady eye contact with the audience.
"I don't think those jokes are funny, either. I didn't go to law school to be the butt of cruel jokes. I went to law school to be another Atticus Finch. To Kill a Mockingbird was my mother's favorite book and my bedtime story. She'd read a chapter each night, and when we came to the end, she'd go back to the beginning and start over. 'Scotty,' she'd say, 'be like Atticus. Be a lawyer. Do good.'
"And that, my fellow members of the bar, is the fundamental question we must ask ourselves: Are we really doing good, or are we just doing really well? Are we noble guardians of the rule of law fighting for justice in America, or are we just greedy parasites using the law to suck every last dollar from society like leeches on a dying man? Are we making the world a better place, or are we just making ourselves filthy rich?
"We must ask ourselves these questions, my friends, because the public is asking the same questions of us. They're questioning us, they're pointing their fingers at us, they're blaming us. Well, I've asked myself these questions, and I have answers, for myself, for you, and for the public: Yes, we are doing good! Yes, we are fighting for justice! Yes, we are making the world a better place!
"And ladies and gentlemen, if you elect me the next president of the state bar of Texas, I will tell the people exactly that! I will remind them that we wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, that we fought for civil rights, that we protect the poor, defend the innocent, free the oppressed. That we stand up for their inalienable rights. That we are all that stands between freedom and oppression, right and wrong, innocence and guilt, life and death. And I will tell the people that I am proud, damn proud, to be a lawyer . . . because lawyers—do—good!"
Now, some might blame the Texas summer heat, but the audience, lawyers all—lawyers who had never protected the poor or defended the innocent or freed the oppressed, lawyers who stood up for the rights of multinational corporations—believed his words, like children who were old enough to know the truth about Santa Claus but who clung desperately to the myth anyway. They rose as one from their seats in the main dining room of the Belo Mansion in downtown Dallas and, with great enthusiasm, applauded the tall thirty-six-year-old speaker, who removed his tortoise-shell glasses, pushed his thick blond hair off his tanned face, and flashed his movie-star smile. He took his seat on the dais behind a nameplate that read A. Scott Fenney, ESQ., Ford Stevens LLP.
As the applause grew louder, the corporate tax lawyer whom Scott was campaigning to succeed as the next state bar president leaned in close and whispered, "You know, Scotty, you've got an impressive line of bullshit. Now I see why half the coeds at SMU dropped their drawers for you."
Scott squeezed the knot of his silk tie, smoothed his $2,000 suit, and whispered back through brilliant white teeth, "Henry, you don't get laid or elected telling the truth."
He then turned and again acknowledged his fellow members of the bar, all standing and applauding him.
Except for one lawyer. Sitting alone in the back of the dining room, at his usual table, was an older gentleman. His thick white hair fell onto his forehead. His bright eyes remained sharp at long distances, but he wore the black reading glasses to eat. He was not a tall man, and his slightly hunched posture made him appear almost short. Even so, he was a lawyer the other lawyers either avoided outright or approached with great caution, like vassals to their lordship, waiting patiently for him to look up from his chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, and pecan pie and acknowledge them with a nod or, on the best of days, a brief handshake. But never did he stand. Come hell or high water, United States District Court Judge Samuel Buford remained seated until he was through eating. Today, though, as he dwelled on the young lawyer's speech, a slight smile crossed his face.
A. Scott Fenney, Esq., had just made a tough judicial decision easy.
The Ford Stevens Law firm occupied floors fifty-five through sixty-three in Dibrell Tower in downtown Dallas. The firm's remarkable financial success was predicated on its two hundred lawyers billing an average of two hundred hours a month at an average of $250 an hour, grossing an average of $120 million a year, and racking up average profits per partner of $1.5 million, putting the Dallas firm on a par with Wall Street firms. Scott Fenney had been a partner for four years now; he pulled down $750,000 a year. He was shooting to double that by the time he was forty.
One of fifty partners, his perks were many: a personal secretary, two paralegals, and four associates working under him; reserved parking in the underground garage; dining, athletic, and country club memberships; and an enormous corner office on the sixty-second floor facing due north—the only direction worth facing in downtown Dallas. He especially loved his office, the wood-paneled walls, the mahogany desk, the leather furniture, the genuine Persian rug imported from Iran on the hardwood floor, and on the wall, the five-foot-square framed field-level blowup of himself, number 22 on the SMU Mustangs, running for 193 yards against the Texas Longhorns the day Scott Fenney became a local football legend. Keeping all these coveted perks required only that Scott serve the firm's corporate clients with the same devotion the disciples showed Jesus Christ.
It was an hour after his bar association speech, and Scott was standing on his Persian rug and admiring Missy, a twenty-seven-year-old ex-Dallas Cowboy cheerleader who ran the firm's summer clerkship program. In the fall of each year, Ford Stevens lawyers fanned out across the country to interview the best second-year students at the best law schools in the nation. The firm hired forty of the top candidates and brought them to Dallas the following summer to work as summer clerks for $2,500 a week plus room and board, parties, alcohol, and at some firms, women. Most partners in large law firms had been frat rats in college, so most summer clerkship programs had all the markings of fraternity rush. Ford Stevens's program was no exception.
Thus the first Monday of June brought the invasion of forty summer clerks, like Bob here, each trying to catch the eye of powerful partners, the partners in turn trying to divine if these budding legal eagles were the Ford Stevens type. Bob was. From the look on the face of the law student standing next to Missy, he was dreaming of having just such an office one day. Which meant he would bill two hundred hours a month for the next eight years without complaint or contempt, at which time the firm would show him the door—the odds of a new associate making partner at Ford Stevens being one in twenty. But the ambitious students still signed on because, as Scott himself told them, "You want odds, go to Vegas. You want a chance to get filthy rich by the time you're forty, hire on with Ford Stevens."
Scott pulled his eyes off Missy and turned to his frumpy middle-aged secretary standing in the door.
"Four calls are holding—your wife, Stan Taylor, George Parker, and Tom Dibrell."
Scott turned back to Missy and the student and shrugged.
"Duty calls." He shook hands with the pale, homely, top-of-his-class student and slapped him on the shoulder. "Bob—"
"Oh, I'm sorry. Now, Rob, my Fourth of July bash, that's mandatory attendance."
"Yes, sir, I've already heard about it."
To Missy: "You bringing some girls over this year?"
"Ten?" Scott whistled. "Ten ex-Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders." The firm paid each girl $500 to spend a few hours in bikinis acting interested in law students. "Bob—"
"Right. You'd better work on your tan, Rob, if you want to snare one of those cheerleaders."
Rob grinned even though he had about as much chance of getting a date with an ex-Dallas Cowboy cheerleader as a one-legged man had winning a butt-kicking contest.
"Mr. Fenney," Rob said, "your speech at the bar luncheon, it was truly inspiring."
First day on the job and the boy was already brownnosing like an experienced associate. Could he possibly be sincere?
Missy winked. Scott didn't know if the wink was because she knew his speech was bullshit or if she was flirting again. Like all good-looking single girls in Dallas, Missy had made flirting an art form, always managing to catch his eye when crossing her long lean legs or brush against him in the elevator or just look at him in a way that made him feel as if they were on the brink of an affair. Of course, every male at the firm felt that way about Missy, but Scott was annually voted the best-looking male lawyer at Ford Stevens by the firm's female support staff, not that it was much of a contest. Scott had been a star football player in college; most lawyers were star chess players. Like Bob here.
Missy and Bob departed, and Scott went around behind his desk and sat in his high-backed leather chair. His eyes found the phone; four lines were blinking. Without conscious thought, his trained mind instantly prioritized the calls: Tom, Stan, George, wife. Tom had paid the firm $3 million last year, Stan $150,000, George $50,000, and his wife nothing.
Scott picked up the phone and punched Tom's line.
Scott was waiting impatiently for the elevator in the lobby of the sixty-second floor, on his way to see Tom Dibrell on the sixty-ninth floor. He could not restrain a smile. He was blessed with the kind of rich client lawyers dream about: a real-estate developer addicted to the deal; a client who habitually borrowed, bought, built, leased, sold, sued, and got sued, and, most important, who possessed an uncanny knack for getting himself into one precarious legal predicament after another, extrication from which always requiring the very expensive legal services of A. Scott Fenney, Esq.
Sue arrived, her face flushed from running after him.
"Mr. Fenney, you have the partnership meeting at two."
Scott checked his watch: 1:45.
"I can't make it. Tom needs me. What's on the agenda?"
Sue handed him the partnership meeting agenda. Only one item required his vote: the termination of John Walker as a partner in the firm. Unlike Scott, John was no longer a blessed lawyer. His rich client had just been bought out by a New York company, which meant his client would no longer be paying legal fees to Ford Stevens; and which now meant John Walker would no longer be employed at Ford Stevens. His $800,000 salary had just become an unnecessary expense to the firm. John was a brilliant lawyer, and he and Scott played hoops together twice a week, but this was business: brilliant lawyers without rich clients were worthless to a large law firm.
The elevator doors opened just as Scott reached into his coat for his pen. He stepped inside and Sue followed. Attached to the agenda was a partnership ballot: TERMINATION OF JOHN WALKER. The only partner in the firm who didn't know John Walker would be fired today was John Walker. Dan Ford believed surprise was critical when firing a partner; otherwise that partner might walk out the door with a few of the firm's clients. So in fifteen minutes John Walker would walk into Dan's office, be unceremoniously fired after twelve years with the firm, and then be escorted from the building by security guards. The firm had never lost a single client to a terminated lawyer.
Sue turned and offered her back; Scott put the ballot against her back and his pen to the ballot and started to sign A. Scott Fenney—but he froze. He felt guilty, even though his vote was a mere formality, a nod to the illusion that the Ford Stevens law firm was a partnership of equal lawyers. In fact, Dan Ford owned the firm and every lawyer, office, desk, and book in the firm; and Dan had already decided to fire John Walker. Scott could either rubber-stamp Dan's decision or refuse and . . . what? . . . join John in the unemployment line? He sighed and signed the ballot in the for column, then handed the ballot back to Sue and said, "Give that to Dan."
She stared at the ballot like it was a death warrant and then said, almost in a whisper: "His wife has breast cancer."
"No. John Walker's wife. His secretary said it's in her lymph nodes."
"You're kidding? Jesus, she's young."
Scott's mother had been young, too, only forty-three, when the same cancer had killed her. Scott had watched helplessly as she lost her breasts, her hair, and her life. He now thought of John's wife and of John, who would soon be standing on the street outside this building, coat and career in hand, cursing his partners for abandoning him and God for abandoning his wife, just as Scott had cursed God as the cancer consumed his mother's body ounce by ounce until she felt like a feather pillow when he lifted her from the bed and carried her to the bathroom.
He could do no more for John's wife than he could for his mother, and no more for John than all the other lawyers Dan Ford had fired without warning . . . but still. Scott stared at himself in the mirrored wall until the elevator eased to a smooth stop and the doors opened on the sixty-ninth floor. The elevator chime snapped him out of his thoughts like a referee's whistle after an injury time-out. He stepped out. The elevator doors closed behind him, and he entered the domain of Dibrell Property Company, the firm's landlord and his most important client, accounting for over ninety percent of the legal fees he generated each year, fees that had bought everything Scott Fenney owned in life, from the bed he slept in to the shoes on his feet.
Excerpted from The Color of Law by Mark Gimenez Copyright © 2005 by Mark Gimenez. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.