About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Last Billable Hour by Susan Wolfe

The Last Billable Hour by Susan Wolfe (1989) – Howard Rickover, just graduated from law school, gains an unexpected job with Tweedmore & Slyde (T & S), the hottest firm serving Silicon Valley. Through skill and determination they are swiftly gaining clients though their office is in San Mateo rather than the Valley. Most of their clients are SVM’s (Silicon Valley Millionaires) who have made fortunes in the computer industry. Howard simply longs to be SMS (Silicon Valley Solvent). 

Howard is known in the firm as How, Big How or Howie. Shortly after being hired he is caught up in the maelstrom that is life for a neophyte lawyer in a busy law firm. Everything is new. The demands of partners are unreasonable. How to address the expectations of clients is intimidating. He is left scrambling long into nights and weekends to try to keep up. Howard is exhausted. 

While unrealistic in real life for him to be given such responsibility Howard has been designated to be a leading member of the firm’s new estate planning department. As the firm works to achieve its lofty goal of being a leading full service American law firm it needs to expand from handling the corporate and litigation needs of the Valley to include the estate needs of its suddenly wealthy clients. 

It is immediately and continually stressed to Howard that the golden thread through all the departments is the “billable hour”. In increments of 6 minutes he is expected to bill through the day and into, if not through, the night. Non-billable hours are a sin. While he is not given a billing target the partners make clear his future with the firm will be brief if his total billable hours are modest. 

At an office party Wolfe recounts one of the lawyers gaining laughs by saying partner, Leo Slyde, is met at the Pearly Gates by God as God wanted to meet the oldest man to reach heaven. When Leo protests that he is but 32 God demurs saying his total billable hours mean he is at least 195. 

Leo calls on Howard to change Leo’s personal will. Howard is startled that a young woman lawyer in the firm, Constance “Connie” Valentine, is named as a beneficiary but not Leo’s wife. 

Howard is a touch na├»ve for a real life law school graduate. He appears to be surprised by the demands upon him. Everyone going to work for a large firm knows the work will be relentless and the hours punishing.  

While Howard parses such matters as “generation skipping trusts” his personal life dwindles into insignificance. 

Everything changes at a party to send off on his honeymoon one of the firm’s lawyers. The lawyers and staff gather in the firm lobby to drink and nibble and gossip. As traditional for lawyers much of the conversation is about how busy they all are at the office. 

The party comes to an abrupt halt when Leo is found stabbed to death in his office. With the elevators locked off it is clear the killer is someone who is at the party.

Detective Sarah Nelson leads the police investigation. Taciturn by nature she is a thorough investigator taping witness interviews. 

She becomes interested in Howard. After listening to a series of lawyers and staff say everyone loved Leo she is intrigued when she asks Howard if he loved Leo and Howard replies: 

“Of course not, I thought he was a flaming asshole like everybody else did. I mean, a successful asshole, I don’t mean to be disrespectful ….” 

Sarah draws Howard into helping her by becoming her informant on the office. Howard has already figured out he is likely to be fired or quit in the near future. He has no loyalty to the firm.

As they move forward a personal relationship builds between Howard and Sarah but credibly rather than the instant leap into intimacy of many modern mysteries. 

It is a lively look at life in a major law firm. Little has changed in the 25 years since Wolfe wrote the book. If anything the pressures and work required of young lawyers has increased. 

Wolfe does well in integrating the mystery into the life of the law firm. The motives for murder are plausible and based on actual law firm issues.
 
Written at a time when authors did not need at least 300 pages to tell a mystery it is a briskly told story that is complete in 182 pages.

I would like to read more of Ms. Wolfe. My next post will discuss that challenge.

7 comments:

  1. I read this a few years ago Bill, and enjoyed it. I'll be curious to see your next post, because I know I would have read more by her but I never did - I don't remember the details but I'm guessing books by Wolfe either non-existent or hard to find? Look forward to an update.

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    1. Moira: Thanks for the comment. Will either have up my follow up post tonight or tomorrow.

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  2. Bill - This sounds like a fascinating look into life at a big law firm. And it's good to know that the mystery is credible and so is most of what the characters do. I'll have to try to find this one.

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    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. You could walk into any medium size law firm in the Silicon Valley area and think you were in Tweedmore Sylde.

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  3. Sounds good. I'll have to find this.

    Speaking of big law firms, I just read "Gray Mountain," by John Grisham. An easy read. The author takes on Big Coal and Big Law. Wall Street lawyer is laid off and goes to Appalachia to help poor people, gets involved in cases against coal companies. Interesting. Will see if Grisham writes a sequel. It was a fine book, but not quite Sycamore Row, although I like women protagonists and attorneys and the cases presented. Lots of compassion here for regular people.

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  4. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. I have not fully read it as I just bought Gray Mountain and will be reading it shortly.

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  5. To me with a lot of stress and sometimes can't find the right book, then I open up Sycamore Row or Gray Mountain and relax with tea and snacks. And I can't wait to get back to the books.

    I wish all books were as easy to read, although I think I like Jake Brigance better than the main character in Gray Mountain, but I think Grisham will develop her character. The woman who runs the legal services agency is a wonderful character.

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