If you’re the type of person who thought “The Devil Wears Prada” would have been better retold by an aspiring Supreme Court clerk in an Armani suit, then “Supreme Ambitions” by blogger David Lat is the book for you.
Audrey Coyne, by all appearances, is a young woman who has it all. She is smart, attractive and well educated. The daughter of a lower middle class interracial couple (Irish and Filipino) from Woodside, Queens, she has a strong model minority work ethic and the ambition to go all the way, which for now is to the U.S. Supreme Court as law clerk. She’s ticked off a Yale Law degree, Law Review and an offer from Cravath from her to-do list and is about to embark on the next league of her journey toward One First Street: a clerkship with Ninth Circuit Judge Christina Wong Stinson.
Judge Stinson, who is also half-Asian, seems like the perfect mentor. She is a future idealized version of Audrey: accomplished, respected, well dressed and married to a wealthy talent agent—allowing her shopping excursions that belie her modest judicial salary. She quickly becomes Audrey’s Svengali—the younger lawyer’s eagerness, intelligence and personal ambition soon become fodder for the jurist’s own aspirations. The judge sees a bit of herself in young Audrey and goads her ambition, telling her, “There is always somewhere else to go. Always.”
Along the way, we meet a colorful supporting cast: a gay male best friend who becomes a political rival; an African-American neighbor who, despite her law degree from a “TTT” (“third-tier toilet” in law school rivalry parlance), has a genuine love of the law that forces Audrey to question her own motives; a love interest slightly less accomplished than our heroine; and a mysterious blogger known only as “Article III Groupie.”
At this point, I am waiting for the sudden violent criminal act that will turn this story into a legal thriller so I can try to figure out which law clerk has a dark hidden past as well as the motive to kill. But what happens next is far more interesting —well, at least to us law nerds. Audrey is asked to take on some controversial cases dealing with heated social issues. How she handles them could be her path to SCOTUS. What will ultimately prevail? Audrey’s ambition, the rule of law or her own conscience?
Those of us who have been to law school all know an Audrey Coyne. She is the “gunner” in Civ Pro who gets the esoteric concepts everyone else only pretends to. She’s the one you borrow outlines from and hope to have in your study group. As a lawyer, she is practically perfect, but a bit too perfect to be completely likeable. Judge Stinson is the far more appealing character, the one you’d like to go shopping with on Rodeo Drive. She is the charming, silver-tongued villainess that you secretly root for. So who comes out on top? You’ll have to read it to find out.
“Supreme Ambitions” shows us the inner workings of a judicial chamber and the intrigue that goes on at the highest levels of the judiciary—details only an insider like Lat can reveal. The book certainly draws on Lat’s own experiences. Aside from sharing a Filipino background, Yale Law degree and federal clerkship with the main character, Lat obtained notoriety in 2005 for outing himself as the real “Article III Groupie,” the purported female author of “Underneath Their Robes.” The blog that chronicled the untold stories of what happens when judges start getting real was the natural confluence of Lat’s interest in the law and his love of gossip. He eventually parlayed this notoriety into a career by founding Above the Law.
Lat smartly avoids engaging in moral grandstanding on controversial social issues addressed by the cases, such as gay marriage, which would clearly be the easy way to write a legal novel (yes, John Grisham, I’m talking to you). Although our heroine feels genuine sympathy for an asylum applicant, her commitment to the law takes precedence over her feelings. As long as she has the law on her side, she can justify anything, even when her behavior becomes “a little monstrous,” as her mentor counsels her to be. It is when the rule of law conflicts with ambition that she suffers a crisis of conscience. As fellow lawyers, we are moved by this, because we’ve all suffered this loss of legal idealism at some point in our careers.
Supreme Ambitions may seem a bit inside baseball at times—Lat mixes fictional characters, such as Judge Stinson, with real ones. As a legal media specialist and former ALM editor, I was amused to see ALM’s own Tony Mauro mentioned, as well as The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin, the actual reporter who got the scoop on A3G’s alter ego (excellent choice of an exclusive, I might add). For lay readers, the book may lack sufficient suspense to be compelling, but for legal insiders, Lat’s attention to detail in this hallowed world makes up for that.