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 naïve 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.