Kermit the Rough Writer

Here’s a bit from In the Shadow of the Law, the debut novel from Kermit Roosevelt, great-great-grandson of Teddy:

“Katja had never come just from sex, just from a man inside her; not once, let alone twice, and as she felt herself clench and release around him, she couldn’t believe that this was the same disciplined body that rose each day at six and ran five miles, the same voice that recited facts and holdings with calm professionalism in class.”

Bully!

Here’s another:

“He’d known, for a year, the purest sort of passion, spending his hours in a transport of research, touching the most secret and delicate places of the law, its hidden contradictions, its mysterious heart.”

Big stick!

For the 33-year-old Mr. Roosevelt, writing a legal bodice-ripper-or, for that matter, a Grisham-like conspiracy page-turner-was never the point.

“Kermit Roosevelt is the first new novelist writing about the law I’ve wanted to publish since Scott Turow,” wrote his editor, Farrar, Straus and Giroux publisher Jonathan Galassi, in a letter to journalists and reviewers of the book.

“Most so-called legal thrillers aren’t very interesting,” Mr. Galassi said in an interview. “They use that setup and then they’re, I’d say, pretty thin. This is pretty rich …. It’s quite a philosophical book about what law means. Each of the characters represents a different way of ingesting law into your psyche.”

Said Patrick Anderson, who has a weekly column reviewing thrillers in The Washington Post: “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 Alan Dershowitz, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted that the law-firm partners in the novel, “either unmarried or divorced, live alone and share a jealous mistress-that abstraction called ‘the law’ and its corporeal embodiment, the institutional law firm.”

As ethereal-even metaphysical-as the book may seem, it betrays a deeper ambition: Mr. Roosevelt wants to pick up the legal novel by its fraying edges and drag it back to the literary heights whence it sprang. Think Dickens’ Bleak House or Kafka’s The Trial. He’s trying to prop up the legal novel, make it intellectual. This is a new kind of legal novel, and the oldest kind: the literary one.

“What I was trying to do was sort of combine Turow and [Jonathan] Franzen-that’s what I was aiming for,” the author said.

Mr. Roosevelt is a small man with spiky, honey-colored hair and a precise way of speaking. He’s reserved but amused, his hands bouncing on his lap in between the tea-party-size Restaurant Week courses of pea soup and grilled tuna.

He got his nickname, Kim, from his grandfather, the former chief of the C.I.A.’s Near East and Africa Division, who helped overthrow Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh of Iran. That Kermit Roosevelt had received the nickname because his father (one of T.R.’s sons) was friends with Rudyard Kipling and was named for the orphaned protagonist in Mr. Kipling’s novel, Kim.

There were all the obvious choices for school: Beauvoir School, then St. Alban’s, then on to Harvard.

“My dad did, my uncles did, my grandfather did, my great-grandfather did, my great-great-grandfather did-yeah, so there was a lot of that,” Mr. Roosevelt said when asked about his alma mater. He majored in philosophy.

At Yale Law School, Mr. Roosevelt was “brilliant, bemused,” according to Noah Feldman, who met him there and is now a professor of law at New York University. “In a world of people sort of, you know, elbowing people to get ahead, he never lowered himself to that kind of jockeying …. Kim had little interest in any of that, I would say. He had kind of a finer idea of what it all could be.”

After graduation, like the character of Walker Eliot in In the Shadow of the Law, Mr. Roosevelt went on to clerk for a Circuit Court judge and then for Justice David Souter of the United States Supreme Court-also like Eliot, playing B-ball on the building’s hardwood, the so-called “highest court in the land.”

“The characters, to the extent that they’re sort of related to me, they’re exaggerated sides of my personality with other things blocked out,” confessed Mr. Roosevelt.

After his clerkship, he was offered an assistant professor’s job at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, but put it off for two years to work in the elite appellate-litigation department at Mayer, Brown, Rowe and Maw in Chicago, where by all accounts he was quite happy.

“People knew that I wasn’t going to stay, because I had the offer from Penn when I came in. And I told them that that’s maybe one of the things that made the experience a little bit more pleasant for me, because I wasn’t really anxious about billing a lot of hours, and I wasn’t anxious about making partner,” he said.

His anxieties were distinctly different from those of his classmates. In law school, he had written a novel about a philosophy graduate student and sent it to an agent named Tina Bennett, who was encouraging; still, nothing happened. In 2002, he had completed a manuscript about life at a law firm and passed it along to Ms. Bennett again. Within a month after sending it out at the beginning of 2003, Ms. Bennett-who also represents Malcolm Gladwell and Laura Hillenbrand-had sold it to Mr. Galassi and Co. (Citing F.S.G. policy, Mr. Roosevelt declined to reveal the size of his advance.)

“I started out loving Joyce and Nabokov, and that’s probably in part why I had a hard time getting things published-because I was trying to write really fancy literary stuff, and that was probably not the right thing to do,” he said.

Today’s legal thriller doesn’t have many friends at that altitude of literary performance.

“I’m not very given to … sort of train reading,” said the lawyer-novelist Louis Begley, when asked about the legal-thriller genre. “I’ve read Bleak House-also The Trial by Kafka.”

If the high point of the genre was indeed set in the mid-19th century with Bleak House, the genre really started to proliferate much later. There was Robert Traver’s 1958 courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder. In the 1970’s, John Jay Osborn published The Paper Chase and The Associates.

Then came Mr. Turow. One L, his 1977 memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School, brought him acclaim, and his meaty first novel, Presumed Innocent, published in 1987, broke the genre open.

By the time Mr. Grisham burst onto the scene in 1991 with a page-turner about a secretive law firm that turns out to be a front for the Cosa Nostra, the genre had become an industry of its own-even if most of its practitioners had abandoned its literary pretensions.

“It’s not about evil partners making you work long hours,” Mr. Roosevelt said over lunch. “It’s more about alienation-feeling like the work you do is not meaningful, not feeling like you’re contributing anything to society.”

“If the problems are not such that they are of a moral dimension in the eyes of lay readers,” said Mr. Turow, speaking of the genre’s constraints, “the novel’s not going to work.”

Mr. Roosevelt’s first novel takes on the subject of life at a corporate law firm. The title-a reference to the axiom that legal rules shape all negotiations-is emblazoned across a cover depicting the glittering, shadow-casting high-rise on Washington D.C.’s K Street where the story unfolds, the home of an imaginary and prestigious mega-firm called Morgan Siler. Mr. Roosevelt traces the paths of six lawyers at the firm in the fall of 2000 as they puzzle through and resolve a pro bono death-penalty appeal and the defense of a chemical corporation after an on-site explosion at one of its plants.

But mostly the cases lead the lovelorn associates down various philosophical rabbit holes, where they spend time debating questions about the nature and strength of the law and marveling at its glory and transformative power. As when Walker Eliot, a former Supreme Court clerk and resident legal genius, reminisces about time spent “feeling the empire of the law spread around him, passing through his body like gamma rays” during his time as a clerk.

Most of the enjoyable parts, the juiciest parts of Mr. Roosevelt’s novel, come when he writes about the interactions between associates and partners. In perhaps the most memorable bit in the novel, an overwhelmed associate-a first-year named Mark Clayton-pulls up to a urinal in the men’s room next to the managing partner. “What are you thinking about?” the partner demands. Clayton flubs an answer: “Work.” The managing partner’s response: “Bill it.”

Those who like to demonize the country’s big corporate firms will find more than enough ammunition in the book. In another scene, Walker Eliot smugly reflects on his cashmere socks (“His feet reveled in their luxury”), and in yet another, when told he can’t update to an Aeron chair unless his old one is broken, he tears his old chair’s cushions and breaks off one of its arms. Afterwards, Mr. Roosevelt writes: “The surprising thing about the world, Walker was coming to realize, was how plastic it was, how malleable to will and intellect.”

But the book is not just about Walker Eliot. It’s about how the law has changed from a profession of intellectual engagement to one of making money, to a very lucrative big business. To be in the law now is to be in the trades.

In the book, Mr. Roosevelt traces the development of the firm from its days under Archibald Morgan, who sees his role as a kind of counselor to companies, to its growth under his son, Peter. In the process, the firm becomes less collegial, more cutthroat.

“You used to have lawyers who were trying to counsel lawyers and give them advice and sort of help them navigate, and now its more lawyers as hired guns churning out a product for clients and doing what the client wants-and there’s a lot more emphasis within the firm on billable hours than there used to be,” said Mr. Roosevelt.

“To some extent, it’s become a lot more like a factory for the production of legal work than it used to be. It used to be more artisanal, or something like that.”

In other words, something more like literature.