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Book of Business A Novel of the Law By Will Nathan Philadelphian Press/$20 The best thing about the new lawyer novel “Book of Business” is that it’s actually good. That’s an important point for a book about business litigation � especially one that’s not much more than a series of caricatures strung together to create a story of a San Francisco litigator falling deeply into trouble through his willingness to represent morally reprehensible clients. Mercifully � and impressively � one doesn’t have to be in on the joke to thoroughly enjoy the book. The pseudonymous author, Will Nathan, like most of the book’s characters, is a barely disguised San Francisco litigator. (Reliable sources tell us Nathan is actually William McGrane of McGrane Greenfield.) More than anything else, “Book of Business” is about swine representing swine. Even if you don’t recognize its main characters as actual San Francisco litigators still billing their 2,000 hours a year, you’ll appreciate the various archetypes. There’s Sol Weiner, the big-firm partner who “was a personal disaster but a legal goldmine,” bringing in millions in fees each year. “Weiner forced his attentions on whatever female person was handiest once the thought of sex occurred to him,” Nathan writes early in the book. “Since he was always at work, this typically happened while he was sitting at his desk.” The novel begins in 1994, with Weiner’s firm getting whacked for the fallout of one such indiscretion, which resulted in a $12 million verdict against his firm. It’s a disaster for its outside counsel, and the book’s central character, August Bondoc. A portly litigator (after losing the verdict, jurors compare him to Jabba the Hut), Bondoc’s book of business includes big, nasty law firms and a deposed dictator widely known for torturing and killing innocent people. From the time Bondoc loses the verdict in the opening pages, the book moves through a series of characters anyone in the legal community would recognize.
Even if you don’t recognize its main characters as actual San Francisco litigators still billing their 2,000 hours a year, you’ll appreciate the various archetypes.

There’s the unstable litigator frustrated with his corporate law partner’s deliberation, the state bar judge afraid of botching his first high-profile trial (“Don’t embarrass yourself like that asshole Ito did,” his wife tells him), and the big-firm managing partner who stupidly insists on directing strategy in a harassment suit. And when that suit goes south, there’s the appellate lawyer who “always covered for any lawyer who brought him into a messy appeal. If you didn’t criticize the lawyers who screwed up, then they kept coming back.” But the focus is on Bondoc, who is willing to represent anyone to keep his fees coming in. Once he loses the $12 million verdict, things immediately head south for him, the drama reaching its apex when a young staffer hacks into the Bondoc firm’s computer system and exposes the assets of a prominent client � the former Haitian dictator Baby Doc Duvalier, whose $16 million gets seized by the Haitian government. The situation is complicated when Bondoc starts sleeping with his staffer, and a dangerous group of people � mainly a corrupt Haitian government official and some disgruntled partners � find out. They bring in the feds, the state bar, and just about anyone else who can make Bondoc’s life miserable. The book moves through its complicated story quickly and efficiently. Nathan manages to make a series of events that could easily become a confusing tangle into a story that’s cohesive and compelling. And for people looking to figure out a puzzle, there are keys everywhere, from people’s names to the clients they represent (look up the lawyer for Bong Bong Marcos, son of the Philippine dictator Ferdinand, and you’ll get the idea) to the names of the firms. It doesn’t take much guesswork to figure out which San Francisco firm “PW&S” stands for, or whom Nathan is portraying with “the most ferocious New York law firm in existence � Sklar, Ark, Slapp, Mead & Flood.” But many of the allusions are more subtle, presenting challenges for the reader who cares about legal gossip in these parts. The puzzle is a success, more so than the gentle moralizing about representing bad clients. We all know that sleaze � especially sleaze � needs counsel, that the only way for it to get counsel is to shell out, and that, right or not, there are lawyers who’ll line up for that business. And it follows that the people who seek out those clients won’t be much more savory than Jabba, even if they don’t always look like him. But that’s not to take away from the book. Over all, it works on several levels to give a sense of the city’s legal community in the mid-1990s � a time when top lawyers here tended to be at smaller, more local firms, rather than the mega-shops that moved in soon after � and also a story that you’ll want to follow until the end, even if you’re not an attorney. Justin Scheck is a reporter for The Recorder.

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