by Ian Graham, Kaplan, New York, N.Y. 320 pages, $24.95
Less than a year into his career as an L.A.-based litigation associate at Latham & Watkins, Ian Graham in 2002 was already a dissatisfied, self-described drone drafting pointless motions and reviewing endless boxes of obscure documents in interminable discovery proceedings for Medicare billing fraud and toxic dumping cases, imprisoned in the gilded Big Law cage of high pay, professional prestige and no life. By then, Mario Rocha was already into his sixth year as a real prisoner, serving a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit.
“Unbillable Hours” is the story of the intersection—or more accurately the collision—between Graham’s privileged yet unhappy life in the law and Rocha’s harsh yet hopeful quest for vindication and freedom. It’s a true story that has the perfect arc of a good legal thriller, and the droll humor of a good stand-up routine to boot.
Graham grew up the son of a big-firm partner in Washington, D.C., and went to law school “for the same reason a lot of people do: because I got in and because I didn’t know what else to do.”
Mario Rocha grew up in the Highland Park neighborhood of east L.A., one of three brothers being raised by a single mother who worked as a school janitor. He was a 16-year-old high school dropout when he attended a party crashed by neighborhood gang members; a college-bound honor student was shot dead during the ensuing brawl. Although not in the gang, Rocha was arrested and charged with the murder, along with two real Highland Park gang members identified by numerous eyewitnesses as the killers. Despite a complete lack of physical evidence or credible testimony against Rocha—there was no evidence that there even was a third gunman—the prosecution lumped him in with his codefendants as a vicious gangbanger who terrorized the partygoers. Rocha was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life terms without possibility of parole.
Latham had taken on Rocha’s case as a pro bono matter. When Graham was assigned to it, his review of the file quickly revealed the weaknesses of the prosecution’s case and the incompetence of Rocha’s defense lawyer, who didn’t conduct any independent investigation. Latham’s investigators found the smoking gun needed for a habeas corpus petition based on ineffective representation of counsel. Party guests, who were never even questioned by the police or Rocha’s lawyer, could give Rocha a cast-iron alibi: He was in the backyard when the murder took place in the party house driveway.
You can probably guess the ending by now—there wouldn’t be a book, or the prize-winning 2006 documentary “Mario’s Story,” if the rest of the story didn’t fit the Hollywood model. After years of obstruction and delay by the L.A. County district attorney’s office, the California Court of Appeal vacated Rocha’s conviction on the basis of Graham’s bravura appellate work. Rocha was released from prison in the summer of 2006, and the D.A. finally dropped the charges against him in 2008. (He is now an undergraduate at George Washington University.)
Meanwhile, the case had become the catalyst for Graham’s transformation. “The contrast between my billable work by day and my unbillable work for Mario at night was hard to take,” Graham writes. “Before Mario’s case, I might not have thought twice about working on [defending a client accused of illegally discharging toxic chemicals] …How different was what I had done for the [polluter] from what the prosecution had done in Mario’s case? Was I willing to excuse Mario’s prosecutors for ‘just doing their job’? …Maybe I needed to rethink my job.”
In 2004, midway through his increasingly all-consuming representation of Rocha, Graham got his first warning that his billable hours were too low, and by the end of 2005, he was told he’d be fired if he didn’t improve immediately. He hung on, churning out vast quantities of (to him) meaningless work, until Rocha was released, then happily quit. His verdict: “As a big-firm lawyer, you don’t cure anyone, you don’t build anything, you don’t create or own anything.…Mario’s case was my personal salvation…because [it] unlocked the golden handcuffs and freed me to see a world and a life beyond the confines of a big law firm.”
As of this writing, Graham is an independent documentary producer. His disillusionment with Big Law is heartfelt and lively, but I think he’s overly jaundiced about the potential for meaning and value in major law firm work. I’ve found in nearly 30 years as a commercial lawyer that I do in fact help to create things—they are just ephemeral.
As I tell my young colleagues, lawyers like us are in the snowflake business. Each deal, each contract, each negotiation is a brief exercise in creating form and meaning, unique and valuable to those involved, however fast they may then melt away. That’s a far cry from saving someone from wrongfully spending his life in prison, but it’s more than nothing at all.
Michael Stern, a former reporter and English professor, is a partner in Cooley Godward’s technology transactions group in Palo Alto, Calif. This review first appeared on The Am Law Daily, a Law Journal affiliate.