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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Peter Baird Writes a Novel

From Washington Lawyer, September 2007

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator

Lawyer novels appear each year, one after another. I am surprised there are not more. Cases, like novels, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Cases are adversarial. They move from conflict to conflict just as novels do.

Lawyers have something that Louis Auchincloss, the lawyer-writer, calls writer’s capital. It is made up of clients, judges, prosecutors, trials, wins and losses, and the opportunity to know people under stress. Lawyers know life practically.

A lawyer novel is better reading than a self-promotion lawyer book reporting the cases the lawyer has won. They do not tell the whole truth. Winning and losing is a mixture of luck and things not to be revealed. Things such as these. The jury is out for three days. The defendant’s lawyer is considering moving for a mistrial. A mistrial is a win in a criminal case. He walks by the deputy marshal sitting in front of the closed door behind which the jury is deliberating. The lawyer says to his friend, the deputy, “I am going to move for a mistrial.” The deputy says: “Not so fast. I would not do that.” The lawyer is aware that the deputy is proud of his good ears. An hour later the jury returns a verdict of not guilty. Such things as this are best left unsaid.

The characters in lawyer novels, as in other novels, carry the imprint of real people. Although the originals are not carbon copied, they provide a start. Somerset Maugham said:

People are too elusive, too shadowy, to be copied; and they are also too incoherent and contradictory. The writer does not copy his originals; he takes what he wants from them, a few traits that have caught his attention, a turn of mind that has fired his imagination and therefrom constructs his character.

In addition, the writer reveals much about himself as he wittingly or unwittingly compares himself to the people who have influenced him.

My shy superlawyer friend Peter Baird, the star of the trial bar out Phoenix way, has drawn on his own substantial capital account in his new novel, Beyond Peleliu (Ravenhawk Books). His main characters are Tom McQuade, a medical doctor, and the doctor’s son, David McQuade, a lawyer. The father and son are too confrontational to get along with each other. Each is controlled by his past.

Although the novel has a fascinating lawsuit in which David McQuade represents a corporate defendant in a products liability case, it is the father-son conflict that makes the story unique.

The lawsuit takes us inside the litigation process. David McQuade, during the litigation, runs what is called a trial lawyer’s fever, the fear of losing. The lawyers in the case look far beyond the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to find a way to force a settlement so that their clients’ behavior will not be made public and the lawyers’ tactics will not be evaluated by their clients. The lawyers must protect themselves from each other and from their clients’ desire to make the lawyers the fall guys.

I learn from David McQuade what to do when everything in the case goes bad. Bad judge. Bad facts. McQuade’s personal psychiatrist preaches an antidote to anxiety attacks: “Objectify, objectify, objectify.” David jots down his emotional trigger points on a legal pad, where they can be objectified and separated from his emotions. On the top of the list is the judge who has just held him in contempt. The litigation ends in a trial in which David uses years of trial experience to solve his client’s and his own problems.

Dr. McQuade’s wife believes in divine intervention, faith healing, and magic. Peter Baird knows the legerdemain, the sleight of hand, the diversion tricks, and the illusions. He knows magic firsthand, a sideline of his for many years. As I read about Mrs. McQuade, I have the feeling that Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry is close by.

We learn about the fog of war. Dr. McQuade commences his medical practice as a military physician on duty in Peleliu, a tranquil Pacific island that became one of the bloodiest battlefields in World War II. It is where the U.S. Marines fought a battle to the death against the Japanese, a tragic battle that military historians say was unnecessary. General MacArthur thought it was necessary in order to establish an airfield on the island. Dr. McQuade is caught in the war’s brutality, the needless using up of soldiers’ courage and the basic, undisciplined meanness that war encourages. Dr. McQuade treats the wounded and is wounded himself. His wounds disqualify him from the surgical practice he wanted as his life’s work.

Dr. McQuade, after the war, finds his way to a small-town medical practice in Utah. He remains embittered over the way the war and his superiors have misused him and others. He never recovers. He and his son, from time to time, try to understand each other. There are occasional breakthroughs.

Each character is a hero and an antihero. The off-and-on relationship between the father and the son gives Baird the opportunity to demonstrate his PhD in human nature. Montaigne’s reflection on the human experiment comes to mind. “We are I know not how, double in ourselves which means we believe what we disbelieve and cannot separate ourselves from what we condemn.”

Baird’s novel differs from most other lawyer stories because of its depth. It is not characters in search of an author, but characters who have found their author.

When I put the book down, I knew I had spent time with real people. Jacob A.

Stein can be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.