What Herman Melville once did for the lowly scriveners who toiled away in the law firms of the 19th century, David Lat, the founder and managing editor of the seminal blog, Above the Law, has now done for a higher-class of the bar's handy-helpers: the often brilliant, always industrious, but preternaturally neurotic law clerks who answer the beck and call of federal judges like hand-holding Hollywood agents.
In his wonderfully entertaining first novel, Supreme Ambitions, Lat offers his readers an inside baseball view of the federal judiciary from the vantage point of a catcher's mitt. Lat knows the landscape of the law like a cagey impressionist, and the picture he paints is one of judges disrobed and off the bench with their great minds and ideological agendas, managing and manipulating their wide-eyed clerks who come to their tasks with law review pedigrees, overachieving eagerness and social awkwardness.
The fictionalizing of the special, servile bond between federal judges and their superstar clerks has rarely if ever been reduced to art before. Who knew that judicial clerkships presented such dramatic possibilities? But there is great emotional complexity in the demanding intelligence and twisted office politics that constitutes life within a judge's chambers.
Think Bartleby, The Scrivener meets The Devil Wears Prada.
Audrey Coyne is a biracial whirlwind of singular drive and dooming self-doubt. Despite possessing degrees from Harvard College and Yale Law School, she nonetheless fixates on her failure to graduate higher than magna or win a Rhodes Scholarship. With perspective so underdeveloped, she decides that salvation can only come from a Supreme Court clerkship.
Meanwhile, Christina Wong Stinson, herself of biracial bloodline and having sprinted along the fast track of lawyerly accomplishment, is a conservative federal appeals judge on the liberal 9th Circuit. She, too, has her eye on the Supreme Court -- not as a clerk, but as the first Asian-American Justice.
Audrey and Judge Stinson, two strivers in high-strung sisterly solidarity, were made for each other in Tiger Mom heaven. Stinson is Audrey's ticket to the high court; Audrey is Stinson's obedient Bartleby who will do almost anything to obtain the patronage of her high-powered, ladder-climbing boss.
As the title suggests, this is a novel about ambition -- supremely and shamelessly coveted. The prize of a Supreme Court clerkship is the Holy Grail of the legal jet set. Yet, Lat portrays the quest for these clerkships as ambition gone haywire. There is constant jockeying among the elite. Gossip is leaked like waterfalls. There is palace intrigue in these stately courthouses. Accolades are collected without ever stopping to assess their meaning. Social lives remain in permanent hiatus. Clerks teem with immodesty and sorely lack in self-awareness.
At some point all of those high school debate tournaments, spelling bee trophies and law review notes demonstrate not personal enrichment but career enslavement -- the ever-perpetuating scorecard of having to prove oneself over and over again.
"Where would the world be without ambition?" Audrey wonders. "It's the force that drives us to create, to achieve, and to realize our full potential. Life-saving, life-changing inventions, Fortune 500 companies, and great works of literature owe their existence to ambition."
All this legal testosterone invites well-deserved cynicism, however. After all, as a blogger, Lat is not beyond judging the judges. The wood-paneled and marble palaces of the judiciary are as much showcases of political calculation as they are temples of legal decision-making. Getting the law right is not a science but a science experiment in human foibles and ideological gamesmanship. Manipulative judges and rapacious clerks both apply and bend the law -- often oblivious to the difference. The law is neither black nor white, but a full palette of colors that are as dependent upon election cycles and court vacancies as on legal principle.
Audrey gamely plays out her rite of passage. Meanwhile, Judge Stinson teaches her the zero sum battlefields of the legal world. "To be a successful professional woman, you need to be a little monstrous," Judge Stinson advises. "You need to use everything in your power to get ahead, because rest assured your rivals are doing the same exact thing."
Stinson is less Ruth Bader Ginsburg than Madame Defarge.
Lat coyly winks at his readers -- especially those who know the lingo of this rarefied legal world well enough to trade in judicial trivia. There is a reference to one federal judge as a "wise Latina." Another judge is a conservative African-American on the Supreme Court who opposes affirmative action. A brilliant conservative judge who sits on the 9th Circuit happens to be both Polish and a noted feeder of law clerks to the Supreme Court.
Lat has delivered a winning amicus brief that shines a revealing light onto the otherwise opaque chambers of the federal judiciary. We couldn't have expected any less from the leading blogger on the legal scene.