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Amy Gutman remembers her three years as an associate at New York’s Cravath, Swaine & Moore mainly for long hours that became an exercise in the limits of human endurance. But these days the experience is paying off handsomely. Gutman, who was a litigation associate at Cravath from 1993 to 1996 and later practiced at the Manhattan litigation boutique now known as Parcher, Hayes & Snyder, has received what her agent calls a “serious six-figure advance” for her first novel, a legal thriller that unfolds in the halls of a fictional white-shoe law firm known as Samson & Mills. Her representatives at publishers Little, Brown & Co. are billing Gutman as a “female John Grisham.” That sets a high sales standard for “Equivocal Death,” which follows junior associate Kate Paine as she investigates the brutal murder of a female partner at Samson & Mills. As Kate discovers well-guarded secrets about the history of the firm, she soon finds that her own life is in danger. And running parallel to the cat-and-mouse murder plot is an examination of the effects that demanding institutions like large law firms can have on the identities of the people who make them run. In part, Gutman said, the book is about “what happens when people lose track of their own goals, their own sense of who they want to be, and replace that with a more generic sense of what’s appropriate.” A thirtysomething living on Manhattan’s West Side who prefers to give her age as “older than Ally McBeal but younger than Caroline Kennedy,” Gutman began her professional career in journalism after graduation from Harvard in 1983. Heading south, she worked as an education reporter at The Tennessean in Nashville and covered the state legislature for The Greenwood Commonwealth in Mississippi, where she occasionally crossed paths with a promising young legislator named Johnny Grisham. Later, Gutman went to work for Mississippi’s higher education commissioner, overseeing the founding of a program to attract liberal arts graduates to teach in public schools in rural Mississippi. “There was a sense that you could really do things ,” she said of her work on the teaching program. “I felt like I was an emblem of how much had changed in the state, that they were inviting people in.” Gutman started at Harvard Law School in 1990 with the notion of eventually getting into public service. But she was intrigued enough by the big-firm life that she ended up at Cravath for her 2L summer. Returning to Cravath after graduation, she was lashed to the mast as part of a team working on litigation related to Congress’ 1992 Cable Act. “My main recollection of a lot of that is exhaustion. It was really arduous,” she said. “In retrospect, it’s kind of fascinating what went on.” As a history and literature major at Harvard, Gutman had a longtime appreciation for the classics. But as a lawyer, she began to develop an interest in legal thrillers. “They were sort of like fairy tales,” she said. “I just found them very satisfying.” By the time she left Cravath in 1996, looking for a saner lifestyle, Gutman had decided to write one of her own. She joined Parcher Hayes as a part-time associate and started the book by researching homicide investigation with contacts from the New York Police Department. But the writing itself was often a struggle, in part because of Gutman’s native perfectionism. “A first draft is a first draft,” she said, recalling her mantra but still not quite convinced. “Why is it so hard to accept that?” After nine months of part-time work, in the midst of what she called a “crisis of faith” about the novel, Gutman asked to come on full-time at Parcher Hayes. She began working on behalf of the estate of “Rent” author Jonathan Larson in defending a claim for royalties lodged by a dramaturgist who sought to be recognized as a co-author of the play. Gutman recalled getting a boost of inspiration while reading through Larson’s journals that led her to decide to leave Parcher Hayes to give her full effort to the book once and for all. “At that point, I started thinking, ‘If I’m ever going to write this book I need to give it a shot,’ ” Gutman remembered. “ I really thought that ‘the worst that can happen is, I’ll finish it, nobody will want it and that’ll be it.’ “ A PARTNERSHIP IS BORN Then, just days before she was scheduled to leave Parcher Hayes, Gutman attended a reading and by chance ended up in a conversation with the mystery author Nelson DeMille. And when DeMille offhandedly introduced her to his own agent, Nick Ellison, a partnership was born. Ellison took on Gutman as a client and sold the still-unfinished book to Little Brown at auction in March 1999. In her acknowledgements at the end of “Equivocal Death,” Gutman calls her serendipitous meeting with Ellison “the closest thing to a fairy tale that’s ever happened to me.” Gutman’s editor at Little Brown, Judy Clain, said she was impressed by her ability to merge a polished style and developed characters into something commercially viable. “I think what’s nice about the book is it’s very entertaining, a great read, but it’s also about something,” Clain said. “There was a real voice to the character. She’s a sophisticated young lawyer, but also vulnerable.” The novel’s title, “Equivocal Death,” is a term of art from homicide investigation, used to describe a crime scene that is ambiguous. Gutman said that she attempted to use murder as a metaphor in the novel for a way of life that is not authentic. And she said her own experience at Cravath had convinced her that the big firm is for many lawyers an unhealthy atmosphere. “The conflicts over whether to stay or leave are really what I was interested in,” she said, noting that she still had vivid memories of curling up under her desk during an all-nighter because it was the only way to get the motion-activated lights to go off. “It’s amazing, even having had a lot of other experiences, how all-encompassing it is and how everything else can fade into some gray nether zone. It’s so absorbing, so intense.” Little Brown is planning a wave of publicity before the January release of “Equivocal Death,” and the book has received positive mentions from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Meanwhile, Gutman is revisiting Samson & Mills in a second novel, also with Kate Paine as protagonist, that will move back and forth through a summer between Maine and the New York legal world. And Clain said she expected to see a series of Kate Paine novels from Gutman. “I think she’s going to have a real career,” she said.

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