Still Waiting for the Great Baby Boomer Lawyer Novel

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Category: Legal Education, Popular Culture & Law, Public

The Baby Boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) transformed the practice of law in the United States. Through the sheer numbers alone, the legal profession was dramatically altered by the influx of members of this generation.

In 1968, the year when the first Baby Boomers enrolled in law school, total law school enrollment in ABA-accredited law schools was 62,779 students; by 1987, when the first post-Baby Boomer students entered law school, the number had increased to 123,198. In the spring of 1968, there were 14,738 law school graduates; in the spring of 1987, the number was 36,121.

The impact of the surge of Baby Boomer law students on the size of the American Bar was extraordinary. In 1970, there were approximately 250,000 lawyers in the United States; by 1990, the number had more than tripled, to over 800,000.

The way in which law was practiced also changed during the era in which members of the generation flooded into law schools.  

When Baby Boomers were in elementary school, 60% of American attorneys were in solo practice; by 1990, that number had dropped to less than a third, as the modern corporate law firm came to dominate the professional landscape. Accordingly, the number of lawyers who were associates in law firms nearly tripled between 1950 and 1990.

Baby Boomers also made the legal profession dramatically more diverse, and ended the 300 year tradition of the bar as a white-male bastion. In 1968, 4.3% of law students were women. By 1986, the percentage had grown to 38.9%. In regard to racial minorities, the impact was even greater. In 1970, there were fewer than 4000 black lawyers in the United States; by 1990, there were more than 26,000.

Harder to measure is the cultural impact of a generation of lawyers who grew up in relative affluence but under the cloud of the threat of a devastating nuclear war. As the generation that gave rise to the phrases, “peace and love,” “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” and “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” it seems likely that at least the residue of such attitudes affected the way that Baby Boomer lawyers thought about their profession and the way they practiced law.

For the past quarter-century, at least, Baby Boomers have also dominated legal education—for an example, just look at the profiles of the Marquette faculty. Contemporary law school education is in many ways a Baby Boomer recrafting of traditional instructional methods.

Such material seems ripe for fictional exploration, but the world still awaits the first great “Baby Boomer Lawyer Novel.”  Although it (or at least the film version) was a major artifact for Baby Boomer law students, I don’t think that John Jay Osborn’s The Paper Chase (1970) quite qualifies for this title since it was published at the outset of the Baby Boom experience with law school and deals only with legal education. (Technically Osborn, who was born August 5, 1945, missed the Baby Boomer cut-off by the being born five-months too early.) I also don’t think that his later novel about law practice, The Associates (1982), meets the “greatness” standard.

John Grisham (born 1955) has sold almost 300 million books about lawyers, but none of his books attempt to capture the generational experience of lawyers of his generation, although I suppose a case could be made for The Summons (2002), which is, interestingly, one of his less well-known novels.

Consequently, I was quite intrigued when I read the review of Kurt Andersen’s new novel, True Believers, in the July 8th New York Times Sunday Book Review. Andersen’s novel is the story of Karen Hollander, born 1949, who grows up in a Chicago suburb, becomes radicalized by the Vietnam War, goes to Harvard and then Yale Law School, and then embarks on a career in law which takes her through a series of successful stints as a legal aid lawyer, a corporate litigator, a Justice Department attorney, and as a professor at Yale Law School. In the novel’s present (2014), she is the Dean of the UCLA Law School and is under consideration for an appointment to the United States Supreme Court.

Over the course of four decades, Hollander traverses wide swathes of the law practice terrain and ultimately approaches the pinnacle of the profession, the Supreme Court. For good measure, she does all of this as a woman.

However, there is more to Hollander’s story than just a track record of success. Throughout her career, Hollander has kept secret her involvement in a violent antiwar protest during her college years. While the details of this event are concealed until the end of the novel, this reader early on began to think of Hollander as a cross between Hilary Clinton and Bernadine Dohrn, the former member of the SDS Weatherman faction who ended up as a law professor in Chicago.

(I do realize that Dohrn’s birth year of 1942 places her with the preceding generation, which included those born during the Great Depression and the Second World War. Clinton, on the other hand, is a card-carrying Baby Boomer and actually briefly appears in the novel as one of Hollander’s fellow students at Yale Law School.)

Unfortunately, the novel pays almost no attention to the protagonist’s legal career/careers, other than repeated references to the fact that she is an extraordinarily successful and widely admired lawyer. The bulk of the novel is a series of flashbacks that help explain Hollander’s gradual movement from teen-age James Bond aficionado to erstwhile 60’s radical. The details stop at the end of her freshman year at Harvard which is when the long-kept-secret incident occurred. After that the narrative returns to the present (which is, technically, the near future).

Very little is made of the fact that the Hollander’s was on the cutting edge of the movement to carve out places for women in what has historically been an all-male profession. Nor is there any discussion regarding how the practice of law changed, or did not change, during her post-law school years.

Consequently, I am obligated to report that we are still waiting for the Great American Baby Boomer Lawyer novel.

Even so, I have to admit that there were parts of True Believers that I found fascinating for purely personal reasons. The novel goes to great length to recreate physical and cultural landscape of Karen Hollander’s adolescence. Because I am only three years younger than the protagonist, the general historical and cultural references were all quite familiar.

Moreover, like the narrator, I went through an intense “James Bond” phase in my early teen years—but the Bond that was the object of our obsession was not the cartoonesque James Bond of the movies, but the grittier secret agent of the Ian Fleming novels which were, amazingly, in my high school library.

Even more coincidental is that in spite of my rural Southern origins, I have travelled much of the same geographic territory as the narrator. Karen Hollander grew up in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, Illinois, in the 1960’s. While the character in the novel was long gone by the time I arrived in 1987, I lived in Wilmette from nearly a decade while teaching in Chicago.

Anderson, the author, clearly went to great lengths to ensure that the movements of the characters around the village matched the actual geographic landscape, and it was fun to appreciate this while reading the novel. Ironically, both the narrator and I lived on Schiller Street, a four-block long lane in the middle of Wilmette which is just south of Lake Avenue.

I had a similar sense of déjà vu when the story shifts to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I arrived as a graduate student only eight years after the character’s departure. Again, I recognized the settings for most of described events, including the eatery, “Tommy’s Lunch,” a legendary Mt. Auburn St. diner that is sadly no longer with us.

For what it is worth, in the intersecting worlds of fact and fiction, the fictional Karen Hollander would have been a classmate of my colleague David Papke at both Harvard College and Yale Law School. On the other hand, at least so far as I can tell, David does not appear in the story.

For anyone who is interested, Kurt Anderson, the author of True Believers is a genuine Baby Boomer (b. 1954) and Harvard graduate (Class of 1976 and one of the editors of the Harvard Lampoon). However, he was from Omaha, so his detailed knowledge of Wilmette geography must be a labor of love. Also, it appears that he never attended law school (nor, for that matter, has he ever been a woman). He was the co-founder of the late Spy magazine (one of my all-time favorite publications) and is the author of a fantastic historical novel about the California Gold Rush called Heyday (2007).

I am no expert on contemporary fiction, so if someone out there has a suggestion for a good novel that tackles the experiences of the Baby Boom generation with the legal profession, I would love to hear about it.

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6 Responses to “Still Waiting for the Great Baby Boomer Lawyer Novel”

  1. As best as I can tell, boomers grew up and became their parents. Actually, most are probably more conservative than their parents. I am often puzzled at how people and friends from the 1970’s who were very liberal are now members of the TEA party and espouse right-wing principles as gospel. There are many who held on to their youthful ideals, but far more who sold-out. It’s easy to see why. The money is all on the conservative side of the equation. “Rocking the boat” is a sure career killer. Joining the corporate world they so despised in their youth leads to the yellow brick road of riches.

  2. Joseph Hylton Says:

    I should have mentioned that Hilary Clinton also appears in the novel as a 17-year-old resident of Park Ridge, Illinois who travels to the North Shore to canvas door-to-door for presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

  3. To follow up on my comments, one effect of boomers turning conservative has been the demonization of an entire class of lawyers. I refer to those who practice personal injury law for plaintiffs. I do not practice PI law. I have no interest in it. But I do resent how the term “trial lawyer” has become an epitaph. How these lawyers who fight to keep unsafe products off the market and promote the rights of those injured through no fault of their own have been portrayed as somehow being an anti-social and evil.

    Corporations have their own lawyers. Often a phalanx full of them. When they lobby and fight to keep dangerous products on the market no one says anything. But when plaintiffs’ lawyers seek to vindicate the rights of those harmed by these products, they are somehow seen as being bad lawyers doing bad things. This must stop.

    I imagine that if a great boomer legal novel is ever written, it will be about corporate lawyers who defeated plaintiffs’ lawyers’ claims. The thought of it makes me ill. Lawyers should not be criticizing other lawyers for doing their jobs. But that is what we have. It must stop but it will not. And we are all the worse off for it.

  4. David Papke Says:

    I’m not sure it would qualify as a “great” work, but DIARY OF A YUPPIE (1986) by the late Louis Auchincloss sounds like the type of “baaby boomer lawyer novel” you are seeking. The novel revolves around the fictional attorney Robert Service, who is an associate at Hoyt, Welles & Andrew on the thirty-second floor of the Pan-Am Building. Service’s self-absorption leads him to quarrel with his supervising partner and to separate from his wife, but, in the end, Service, a dutiful preppie, gets back on track after counseling from his favorite prep school teacher at venerable Haverstock.

    Service is a specialist on corporate take-overs, but here is Auchincloss (not Service) on trial work: “Litigation has survived in a world of computers like a Toonerville trolley on the track of a Metroliner. Yet its very survival has made it curiously revered. The tricks and winks and chuckles of the courtroom technique, the voice of thunder, the sly insinuations, the throat clearings, the whispered conferences, the whole hammy vaudeville adored by judge and juries . . . has become too sacred to be touched, has even in some crazy way taken the place of our empty churches as the shrine of the oldest American virture.”

  5. Joseph Hylton Says:

    I certainly agree that Louis Auchincloss’ “Diary of a Yuppie” is a wonderful lawyer novel, and its satiric take on “Baby Boomer Lawyers” strikes me as quite on target.

    My quibble is that Auchincloss (born 1917) was not a baby-boomer but was rather a member of the generation responsible for the baby boom. While the novel is quite insightful, it represents an evaluation of baby boomer lawyers from the perspective of an older generation.

    I am looking for a novel written by a member of the generation born in the aftermath of World War II that addresses the practice of law in the final third of the 20th century with candor and insight.

    Perhaps the best Baby Boomer lawyer novels aren’t novels at all, but are television shows, especially those associated with lawyer-screenwriter David E. Kelley (born 1956).

    Kelley, a graduate of Princeton and the Boston University Law School, was responsible for the already iconic lawyer shows, L.A. Law, The Practice, Ally McBeal, and Boston Legal.

    Baby Boomers were the first television generation, so maybe its is appropriate that their greatest fictional biographer should be a television screenwriter.

  6. Mike Kernats Says:

    I recommend Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel “Freedom.” One of the main characters is an environmental lawyer from the Twin Cities who deceives himself into selling out to a rich job creator to serve as a lobbyist in Washington D.C. for a mountain top removal coal mining company in the Appalachians. After the mountains and streams have been destroyed, a wildlife refuge is supposed to be created from what’s left. He eventually comes to his senses and quits. There’s lots more to the novel, but the lawyer character is involved in just about all of the action.

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