A Reluctant Page-Turner Confesses
by Doug McQuiston
More than one Docket member harbors the secret desire to become a best-selling novelist and junking the tedium of our law practices. Some have actually written a novel. Others dream of someday being "discovered" by Harper &
The problem with the law gig is that it offers little time to write the next great legal novel. I suppose being busy is a good problem to have, when one contemplates the alternative. But wouldn’t it be great if we could hop off the treadmill just long enough to garret ourselves away to write? Some firms have discovered the secret—Sabbaticals! Boulder’s Hutchinson, Black and Cook is one of those enlightened firms, and Baine Kerr is one of their lucky "sabbáticos." Mr. Kerr, a plaintiff’s trial attorney, used his recent time off to write a book, "Harmful Intent."
The book is a Grisham-esque story of a hard-edged, hard-drinking Boulder plaintiff’s lawyer, Peter Moss, fresh off a lengthy stretch in a lush Costa Rican rain forest to dry out from years of hard drinking. Our hero, now sobered up, also uses his six-month sabbatical (coincidence?) to reassess his career after a devastating loss. He concludes that he won’t handle any more malpractice cases, expressed in Spanish, (of course) as "malpráctica no mas."
Baine assures me the character is not autobiographical. However, observant readers may notice a parallel or two between some of the other characters, and organizations, featured in the book and real life. These too, Baine assures, are merely coincidental, perhaps the inadvertent fictional result of a writer "writing about what he knows."
It doesn’t take Moss long to fall off the wagon, though. He promptly breaks his vows to stay off liquor and malpractice cases. Moss succumbs to emotion, taking on "one last malpractice case," against his better judgment: the case of a young single mother against her general practitioner for the latter’s failure to diagnose what has by now become a fatal breast cancer. He is motivated both by compassion for the plaintiff and her soon-to-be-orphaned daughter, and by a burning hatred of the soon-to-be-defendant physician, Bondurant. It was Bondurant who had vanquished Moss to the rain forest in the first place—he was the defendant in the case Moss lost which drove him first to drink, then to the rain forest. Moss doesn’t know, nor does the reader, the true toll this "last" malpractice case will extract from him, and those around him, by its conclusion.
I must admit it was a bit tough for me to get into the book, mostly because I had to swallow hard and look past the stereotyped (and, well, over the top) villains: the "evil defense lawyer," "plodding, unethical doctor," and "ruthless insurer." The hackneyed characterizations of the "enemy" even extend to the expert witnesses. Moss’ medical expert is a brave, brilliant knight, fighting for patients’ rights to good medical care; the defense medical experts are well-educated charlatans, in it for the money, uncaring and willing to lie to "cover" their brother physicians.
Maybe there are real-life characters who fit these fictional concoctions, but if so, I have never encountered them. The defense lawyer, Jerome Basteen, is pure scorched-earth clad in silk stockings. From his marble-floored offices to his top of the line BMW and $2,000 Italian suits, Basteen is the "central casting" 17th Street lawyer. I am only now recovering from the knot left on my head after being clubbed with this imagery.
Any real practitioner of defense law will have to try to stop laughing at this portrayal long enough to keep reading. Our clients’ insurers will no longer pay for "scorched earth," by and large. Most of us will never own a hundred thousand dollars worth of cars in our lifetimes, much less a single vehicle worth that much. Our suits are off the rack at TC’s or Foley’s. We marvel at the Rolexes and diamond rings adorning the wrists and fingers of our adversaries on the plaintiff’s side, while we struggle to get our clients’ insurers to pay us our reduced rates.
This is an unfortunate shortcoming of the book—its portrayal of the defense side is so opulently evil the reader loses the chance to dig deeper into the more human, and more interesting, dimension to these emotionally charged issues. Perhaps giving the same human dimension to the book’s "villains" as is lavished on its heroes would have deepened the reader’s investment, and increased the payoff.
However, the reader who perseveres, will be rewarded with what is, above gripes notwithstanding, really a pretty good tale. Despite my initial recoil, I found myself turning pages, enjoying the plot twists and unexpected turns. The book has a movie’s quick and engaging pacing.
As Moss dives deeper into this "last" malpractice case, his old, bad habits return. He becomes increasingly obsessed with atoning for his earlier loss against the same physician. He begins drinking again. He loses track of his other cases, and spends so much money on this case that his partners abandon him. The more he digs, the more he finds, so he keeps digging. But is the question he had, the big "Why" that haunts him, any closer to an answer? The answer does not come until the end, and when it hits, it blindsides.
I am no lover of Grisham or Turow novels, and generally try to avoid reading any novel with a legal backdrop. Although it pains me as a defense lawyer to say it, "Harmful Intent" was a good read.
Now, if Baine could just get me an appointment with his publisher, I could work on my own novel, about a hard-working, underpaid insurance defense lawyer who valiantly struggles to protect the kind, compassionate physician from an unfair suit by a greedy former patient and his Armani-suited, Rolex wearing, Porsche-driving plaintiff’s lawyer . . .