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Editor’s note: This is the first article in “Tableside” — a new series by American Lawyer Media Supreme Court Correspondent and “Courtside” columnist Tony Mauro — in which he’ll report on his conversations over lunch with lawyers of note, on subjects ranging from law to food to politics to life in general. With his studious bearing and wire-rimmed glasses, best-selling author Brad Meltzer would fit right in at a dark, brooding Viennese coffeehouse. Instead, we are swapping plates of noodles at a colorful Thai restaurant in Bethesda, Md., and the 30-year-old Meltzer is cheerfully enthusing about the food. “The Pad See Yew is fantastic. It used to not be on the lunch menu, but there it is. Number 46,” he says. “The thing about this place is that it’s consistent, not greasy, and the people are nice.” A woman at the next table, seeing the photographer aim a camera at him, asks Meltzer who he is. “I’m nobody,” he demurs at first, but then confesses he has just written a book. It’s called “The First Counsel,” he says, and it’s about a White House lawyer who dates the president’s daughter. Needless to say, it’s fiction. He points across the street at a Barnes & Noble bookstore, which is hosting a book-signing for Meltzer a week hence. He invites her to stop by. “Tell me you’re the person I met at the Thai restaurant. Bring your friends.” Meltzer is clearly in his element at Tara Thai, near where he lives with his wife, Cori Flam, also a lawyer. Meltzer doesn’t often get to downtown Washington during the day. The roundtrip tends to blow too big a hole in his daylong writing routine. The fact that he works from home in Bethesda also underlines the fact that makes many lawyers envious of Brad Meltzer: He doesn’t need to commute to work at a Washington law firm, or one in New York, or anywhere else. He’s the guy who had an idea for a novel while daydreaming in class at Columbia Law School. “Clerk. Supreme Court” is how he wrote it down on the back of his calendar. By the time he picked up his law degree in 1996, Meltzer had a six-figure advance in his pocket for “The Tenth Justice.” It made the bestseller lists and was optioned as a movie, and Meltzer has never had to work a day as a lawyer. Even John Grisham practiced law before he hit it big. Meltzer is genuinely humble about his good fortune and freely offers advice to the lawyers who call him to confide that they too are tapping away on books. “It’s amazing how many people at law firms are writing novels,” he says. “It’s never ‘I’m at a public interest firm and I’m writing a novel.’ It’s always the lawyers at big firms — the ones who say ‘I’m miserable now so I can be happy later on.’ “ Meltzer would have had to do the same to pay off $60,000 in law school loans if the book deal had not come along — “I got lucky,” he says — so he is careful not to disparage big firms or the profession. His wife also worked at one — Hogan & Hartson — though she is now a House Judiciary Committee staffer. “I like the law,” Meltzer says. “I’m not one of those self-hating lawyers. It’s just that writing is my passion, and you follow your passion.” It’s been a successful passion so far, and is likely to get even more so. His first book, “The Tenth Justice,” did well; his second, “Dead Even,” not as well; but “The First Counsel,” as improbable as its plot seems, appears headed for breakthrough success. With presidential daughters arriving and leaving the White House, and presidential lawyers never far from the news, the requisite buzz is building. Meltzer’s publisher, Warner Books, threw a book party at the Hay-Adams Hotel last week, co-hosted by White House Cabinet Secretary Thurgood Marshall Jr. and Deputy Counsel Bruce Lindsey. Marshall says he has not finished reading the book yet, but agrees that it rings true. IN THE FAST LANE “The First Counsel” captures the fishbowl, pressure-cooker atmosphere at the White House from the perspective of the 20- and 30-something staffers whose dialogue and insecurities Meltzer has a knack for conveying. And if it rings true, it’s because Meltzer did his research. He interviewed several White House lawyers and staffers — some of them at the height of the Monica Lewinsky affair — to understand what it’s like to work for the president. They live, breathe, and die by the morning newspapers. “I was amazed. You are never more attuned to what is being written about you than when you are in the White House,” Meltzer says. “The moment when they all get the most animated is when you ask them about meeting the president,” he says between bites of Thai food. “The meeting may have lasted 30 seconds, but it’s a 20-minute story. It’s not the handshake that’s important, it’s the choreography that led up to it.” He was able to get tours off the beaten track, including one of the attic of the Old Executive Office Building, which boasts a view of the president’s White House bedroom. The attic quickly became the setting for a key scene in the book. “Fiction is its best when it has one foot in reality,” Meltzer says. “When you make it up, people say you’re lying, so why not get it right?” Meltzer also interviewed four former White House counsel — Lloyd Cutler, Len Garment, Jack Quinn, and Fred Fielding — for the book. The fact that he was writing a novel helped open doors. “If you’re a reporter interviewing a former White House counsel, they don’t need that headache,” he says. “But me, I told them, ‘I don’t care about a single issue you worked on, I want to know where you went to lunch.’ People asked me if it would be off the record. I told them, ‘I don’t have a record.’ “ All the White House counsel, he says, “have this aura of calm. They’re accustomed to being around great amounts of power.” From the counsel, Meltzer also learned that he had to add some excitement to his book. It couldn’t just be about White House lawyers. “The White House counsel’s office is interesting, but not that interesting. So I began to think: What is the one mistake they could make that would get them in trouble?” An unusual answer came to mind: dating the president’s daughter. He set off to interview some of them, too, but found most were well-insulated from writers like him, even years after leaving the White House. Only one First Daughter answered his questions, by fax. Meltzer won’t say which one it was. “I felt I owed her a responsibility not to capitalize on her.” Even as he embarks on his book tour for “The First Counsel,” Meltzer is well into his next book. All he’ll say is that it involves a lawyer, “but not how you’d expect.” He worries about keeping his work — and the entire legal thriller genre — fresh. “A genre exhausts itself when you start getting a lot of the same thing,” he says. “And this genre will die in the courtroom if we all keep writing the same courtroom scene.” He adds, “I say proudly that I write legal thrillers, but I’ve never written a courtroom scene. It’s been done a hundred million times, and I won’t do one.”

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