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If a child sorcerer in spectacles can capture the national imagination, why not cattle that unionize? “Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type,” by associate Doreen Cronin, is this year’s second-least-likely publishing hit. It cracked the New York Times picture book bestseller list in August, soon after Harry Potter forced the Times to list children’s books separately, and has climbed as high as number five. The setting of “Click, Clack, Moo” setting recalls George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” but its plot echoes the Brer Rabbit trickster tales. A group of cows discovers an old typewriter and type Farmer Brown a polite request for electric blankets. After Farmer Brown rebuffs them, they ally with the hens and strike. The farmer volleys back a formal, imperious note: “Dear Cows and Hens: There will be no electric blankets. You are cows and hens. I demand milk and eggs. Sincerely, Farmer Brown.” The cows respond by proposing a deal: You send us the blankets, and we’ll send over Duck — who is supposedly a neutral party — with the typewriter. Farmer Brown accepts the deal, but the ducks abscond with the typewriter and type a new note: “Dear Farmer Brown, The pond is quite boring. We’d like a diving board. Sincerely, The Ducks.” The book ends with the words, “Click, clack, QUACK,” and with the image of Duck trying out his new diving board. Cronin has a running argument with her fianc�, Andrew Gottesman, also an associate, over the meaning of the parable. “I say it’s about the power of education and writing. He says, ‘You’re out of your mind. It’s a book about unions.’ “ There are readers who maintain the book is about double-crossing lawyers. And then there’s the first-grader theory: It’s a book about cows. Cronin does a touch of labor law as a commercial litigator at New York’s midsize Mound, Cotton & Wollan, and she worked at a union-side firm, Colleran, O’Hara & Mills, while at St. John’s University School of Law. But she drafted “Click, Clack, Moo” before law school. Her first career, as a designer of elementary school programs and games, had more to do with cows. “I know the union message is in there, and I’m perfectly comfortable with it,” she says, “but I didn’t set out to write a book about unions.” For the record, she does not regard Duck as a double-crosser, although he may be a good lawyer. “There are a lot of loopholes in that deal,” she says. “Click, Clack, Moo” could be read by an overactive reader as a law firm parable — after all, the pond is boring. But even Cronin, the raconteur-provocateur, is skeptical about the benefits that a union could bring associates. “When I get home at the end of the day, my back doesn’t hurt,” she says. “If I do have to stay till 2 a.m., I get free dinner and a car ride home.” Inspired by Duck, I put the question of whether associates should unionize to some leading labor lawyers. The general counsel of the AFL-CIO, Jon Hiatt, would say only that associates “seem to be doing pretty well for themselves with the Internet.” But Charles Craver of George Washington University argues that, by leading to shorter hours at law firms, “unionization would make associates better and more ethical lawyers.” It ain’t about to happen, he concedes, because, no matter the odds, every associate thinks he’ll be the one to make partner. There’s no clear legal barrier to associate unions. In 1973, the National Labor Relations Board declined to assert jurisdiction over a firm because of a distinction between law and “commerce.” But the board abandoned that quaint distinction in 1977, in a case involving clerical staff at Boston’s Foley, Hoag & Eliot. The one recent associate union effort, at Oakland, Calif.’s Van Bourg, Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld, fizzled when key associates left, and partners argued that the same union could not represent lawyers and clerical staff, too. For her part, Cronin cares more about writing than organizing. She has taken to collecting antique typewriters and typewriter parts — a 1917 Corona, a 1923 Underwood, some unidentified typewriter-key refrigerator magnets. And she is at work on a “Click, Clack” sequel, but the plot is a closely guarded secret. As Cronin puts it, “Suffice it to say that Duck takes over.”

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