Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The (Sometimes) Thin Line Between Advice and the Slammer



By Jamie Freveletti

While working as a lawyer I handled some white collar criminal cases. My law firm specialized in food, drug, and medical device issues, and many of the cases involved pharmaceuticals. For my part, most of the so called “criminals” were just regular people involved in regular jobs that during a particularly stressful time stepped over the line from good judgment to bad.

Sometimes really bad.

Remember that scene in “The Firm” where an attorney dies in a boating “accident” and Tom Cruise as Mitch goes to the house of an older associate to express his condolences? The man is sitting in his garden, unmoving, while the lawn sprinkler is systematically spraying his pant leg on each pass. I loved that scene, because it’s the first time that Mitch gets a sense that something is not quite right in his new firm. It’s understated; quiet, but you see the other lawyer’s numb despair and it leaves you worried for Mitch and wondering what’s actually going on in this firm.

There’s a whole lot that Grisham did right in that story. The other young lawyer characters were friendly, filled with camaraderie, and yet also trapped. You liked them, but knew they weren’t going to help Mitch out of his troubles. Grisham could have made them all unrelentingly evil, but in my opinion that wouldn’t have worked as well. It matched the world of white collar crime, where the criminals are essentially con men and women in suits and they can move among society a lot easier than a gang member in droopy pants. (An FBI agent once told me that in general white collar criminals cave under pressure from his office remarkably fast, but that's a blog post for another day).

I also liked that some of the older partners were evil but showed glimpses of grim determination tinged with regret. Several of the actors, especially Hal Holbrook as the white haired managing partner, were pitch perfect. They expressed that “I regret to inform you that I’m going to kill you” attitude that is the hallmark of a wonderful, menacing performance.

I’m fascinated by the group mentality that convinces smart, moral people to do stupid, immoral things. The lawyer who writes the memo suggesting ways to avoid revealing the defect in a car (Toyota), or the one who gives a legal opinion that allows for multiple layers of corporations be used to shuttle money around within an entity to give the appearance of productivity (Enron). Were you able to pull these people out of their suits, sit them down at their kitchen table and ask them to do the same, many would squirm and hedge, and some would flatly refuse. Yet, take them off to the job and have a fee paying client demand the same thing, and these “smart” people apply their not insignificant intelligence to do just that. Often it involves a blind adherence to the corporation that baffles me, but that I saw over and over in my years as a litigator. Grisham must have too, because he wrote it beautifully.

I use the blind adherence principle in my own writing. It requires painstaking set-up, because the reader needs to see the trajectory of the white collar criminal as he takes each step down the path toward that line between legal and illegal, but the payoff for a crime writer is great. It’s a bit of reality that lends a feeling of truth and makes for a great read.

22 comments:

Dana King said...

Here's the key sentence:

"...have a fee paying client demand the same thing..."

Follow the money. Some things never change.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Ahh Dana-you are so right!

Laura Caldwell said...

Great post Jamie. Makes me think of the opening lines of the book by Cynthia Cooper, who was the whistle blower at WorldCom:

"We don't wake up and say, 'I think I'll become a criminal today.' It's a slippery slope and we lose our footing one step at a time."

Libby Hellmann said...

And how many novels do you think have just been started as a result of the Goldman Sachs suit?

Jamie Freveletti said...

Laura-LOVE that quote. So true for the white collar world.

Libby--Have been waiting for the Goldman shoe to drop. Considering a topic of "Is Wall Street Destroying Our Economy?" for next literary salon. Think it would be interesting to hear the pros and cons.

sara Paretsky said...

Jamie, another wonderful thought-provoking column. How clever of me to resign from the Outfit so you could start posting. Eons ago, I worked for CNA Insurance. The WAtergate hearings were going on, as I watched the senior staff around me. Like Dean, et al, they all craved the status that came from being close to the chairman--or in Dean's case, the president, which blinded them to other "kitchen-table" concerns. I used to think in Laura's exact words--Dean didn't wake up saying "I'll undermine the Constitution today." He just wanted to be part of the circle close to Nixon. (cheney, on the other hand...)

Michael Dymmoch said...

C.S. Lewis explained the gradual road to Hell eloquently in the Screwtape Letters: The gentle slope, soft under foot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without sign posts...

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