I’m a sucker for memoirs of trial lawyers. I’ve been hooked on such books ever since I was 13 years old, when I first read Louis Nizer’s “My Life in Court.” They inspire me to keep on doing what I’m doing, and to try to do it better.
The eloquence of counsel; the excitement of the courtroom; the art of the cross-examination, litigation strategy and tactics; the tension and uncertainty of outcome; the battle of wits—all these are on display in great profusion in autobiographies of trial lawyers.
“The Client Decides,” by retired Paul Weiss litigator Martin London, is no exception. It continues the genre’s inspiring tradition while it entertains as well. At age 83, and retired for 12 years, London looks back and has written a fascinating and gripping memoir that law students, lawyers, and even non-lawyers will enjoy.
A large part of what makes this book so enjoyable is London’s easy writing style. He is neither pompous nor pedantic, nor preoccupied with legal technicalities. Instead, London writes in a relaxed, conversational, informal voice, as if he were sitting in a bar with you sharing war stories. The contractions and occasional curse words fit the mood and tone of the book. They make you think of the author as a pal.
London tells about his greatest cases. One was representing Jackie Kennedy in her legal fight against a photographer who was harassing her and her children. In another, he represented Spiro Agnew in a bribery scandal, and negotiated his resignation as vice president and his plea deal that avoided jail time. London was one of the moving forces behind the disbarment of Roy Cohn.
One of the most riveting chapters is about a successful pro bono civil rights case against a group of evangelical anti-abortionists in Oregon who were signaling others to kill physicians who performed abortions. London describes how the group eerily justified its actions on religious grounds.
London can sometimes surprise the reader with contrarian viewpoints. He rightly criticizes First Amendment lawyers, for instance, who “do not recognize any competing interest.” He even dislikes the landmark case of Times v. Sullivan, which ushered in the modern era of libel law. London makes a good case for his position, no doubt in part stemming from his occasional representation of libel plaintiffs. In one libel cases, his client was a cigarette company who overcame strong odds and won the largest federal libel verdict ever sustained on appeal.
London describes how three famous lawyers—ex-Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg; former Attorney General and Judge, Griffin Bell; and Louis Nizer—all committed the cardinal sin of reading a script at oral argument on appeal. Goldberg even read the same page twice, and Bell, when asked a question by a judge, answered unbelievably, “Your Honor, I’m sorry, that is not in my book.” No lawyer who reads about these incidents will ever even think about reading an oral argument.
Other lessons abound. London describes Attorney General Elliot Richardson making a “classic trial lawyer error—he failed to leave the court the moment he had the result he wanted.” Elsewhere, London refers to a trial as “a place where sometimes bad things happen.”
Like most of us, London “hate[s] even small surprises in a deposition.” He has a “love/hate relationship with cross-examination.” Preparation can be “extensive,” “exhausting,” and “torture,” but “then, in court … totally confident of where I am going, center stage, in charge, adrenaline pumping, I am flying. I love that part.”
“All lawyers hate to lose,” London says, and the “worst” is when it is a loss “you let happen.” Then you are “bereft.”
Excellent as it is, the book would have been even better if London had told more about his professional struggles and self-doubts. Sure, he worked hard, but most of us do too. Sure, he spent more time on cases away from home than he liked, but many of us do that too. Sure, London won many cases, but he must have lost some too; we all do. How did he cope with the rough spots in his career (there must have been some)? Did London ever get tired of the grind? Does he have any regrets?
Only once do we learn of a professional crisis. His first law job at a small firm is an unhappy experience, which London describes with feeling, mostly anger. While on active duty in the Army, London writes to a law school classmate who happened to be at Paul Weiss and his new job was arranged. Such struggles and hardships are important. We like to hear how people overcome them.
As a literary genre, the trial lawyer’s memoir can be tricky. Authors of such memoirs are the heroes of the story, but they have to be wary of too much self-congratulation, lest they strike the reader as absurdly boastful. Revealing confidential or privileged information can also pose a risk.
The lawyer-author has to think about getting the client’s permission or perhaps even a written release beforehand. After all, a fair, even-handed and interesting memoir might talk about the foibles and flaws in the client’s character and behavior. And of the course the best memoirs reveal the author’s own weaknesses, mistakes, self-doubts and inner struggles.
Beyond all this is the disturbing question of whether a client who retains a lawyer and confides in that lawyer expects that lawyer to publicize the client’s legal troubles to the world. So, a lawyer who writes a memoir has to steer carefully to avoid these pitfalls.
Martin London does that well. This is a great and inspiring example of the genre.