The American Lawyer

Chapter One

San Francisco

    There are three ways a pissed-off senior law firm partner can get rid of an irritatingly bright and popular associate who's up for partnership. Two of them do not involve homicide.
     Most common is the time-honored method of overwhelming the young lawyer with more work than can possibly be done well, then firing him or her for substandard performance. The second way is to find an ill-prepared case in the office and assign it to the hapless associate just two or three days before trial, then give him the shoe when he loses.
    The pissed-off senior partner in this instance was Eric Driver, the brilliant and porcine chief of Caldwell and Shaw's securities group. Driver picked the second method and Jesse Hall (the popular associate whose penchant for pro bono publico work had turned the parsimonious Driver against him) soon found himself studying a jury—a collection of retirees, housewives, two postal workers, and one Burger King night manager—that would soon judge his client, defendant Ben Staley.
    Jesse didn't like what he saw. The jurors—especially the women—had obviously been charmed by plaintiff Calvin "Cal" Covington's glib bullshit on direct examination. The big Texan's pale blue, heavily-lidded eyes had caressed the jurors as warmly as his embellished drawl. Jesse had to admit that despite being abundantly full of crap, the man was engaging. Over six feet four, three inches taller than Jesse, Covington's looks were otherwise ordinary and his manner was disarmingly folksy, his rumpled brown suit looking recently washed with him in it. Covington—sophisticated billionaire CEO of CalCorp International—had reinvented himself as the perfect plaintiff.
    "I might as well have invited a fox into my chicken house," said Covington, finishing up his testimony in a tone of perfectly blended disappointment and righteous indignation. "Ben Staley quit my Company, took our proprietary and confidential customer list with him, then sold auto parts to my customers far below his own cost. This was clear predatory pricing—temporarily selling cheap to put me out of business so he could then have my customers all to himself."
    Covington finished with the anguished sigh of a man betrayed, and then spread his hands, palms up. What more was there to say?
    "That's all we have, Your Honor," announced Norman Crandell, CalCorp's lawyer, a suave, grey-haired litigator wearing a $2,000 suit and a supercilious smile.
    "Do you wish to cross-examine, counsel?" said Judge Martha Berman, a bright young Schwarzenegger appointee whose tone suggested that Jesse would be insane to try it.
    Jesse groaned inwardly and raked fingers through his straw-colored hair. He had always hated injustice in any form, and Covington was an obvious commercial bully who had wrapped himself in the gauzy protection of arcane laws, artfully tailored by the best lawyers money could buy.
    A plaintiff's verdict would finish Ben Staley, financially and emotionally. Although Jesse had only known the old guy a few days, he liked Ben and didn't want to let him down. But the case had been ill-prepared and it was clear to Jesse why Eric Driver had fired the associate who had worked it up. There was no defense expert witness. No witnesses at all. The case was full of holes.
    Jesse had a single ace he might be able to play, but knew it would not be enough unless he could first break the spell Covington had cast over the jury.
He glanced up at the witness and his heart pounded with mingled anxiety and frustration. Covington returned Jesse's gaze with a laser look that said he was ready for anything the kid might throw at him. This was a man who had created an automotive supply empire out of nothing, boasting over six thousand retail stores internationally and total domination of the Internet auto parts market. Whether you recently replaced your windshield or just a wiper, you probably contributed to CalCorp's bottom line.
   "Cross-examine, Mr. Hall?" said the judge, impatiently fiddling with her gavel. "Preferably before the close of the current epoch?"
    Jesse rose and glanced upward as if for guidance. He was once again struck by the grandeur of the venerable, high-ceilinged courtroom that seemed too large for a case so small; a case that only himself and his client seemed genuinely interested in. He was aware of an uncomfortable dampness across his back and a sound like a broken bicycle pump—his own breathing. He knew the jury was watching him, waiting to see what he would do. He resisted the urge to lick his dry lips, knowing it might betray his anxiety. And there on the witness stand, the big man waited, too, a broad harmonica smile on his own full lips that exposed two even rows of large white teeth set above a chin the size of a bucket. Everything about the man was big.
    Not just big, but very big and very rich—which got Jesse thinking. The trick in trial work was to try to break the connection between the jury and your opponent. And didn't Covington's great wealth put him into a different universe from every juror in the box?
    He felt a chill. He had his theme. Now he just had to develop it into a killer cross and hope his ace would provide the Big Finish. If so, who knew what might happen? He approached the witness. "Mr. Covington—"
    "Call me 'Cal,' son. Everybody does." Jesse heard the subtext: I may be powerful and richer than God, but, hell, folks, I'm just one of you.
    "Sir, you—CalCorp—are a Fortune 500 Company, right?"
    "Yep. The good Lord has been excessively good to me, undeserving though I may be." Another smile at the jurors and two of them smiled back! Jesse felt more dampness spreading across his back.
    "Standard and Poors says your company had six and a half billion dollars in sales last year. Sound right?"
    "Ballpark," Covington said.
    "Are you aware that Ben Staley had only $200,000 in sales in this region since leaving CalCorp, far less than one-tenth of a thousandth of your total sales?"
    Jesse knew—and hoped the jury would soon see—that to Cal Covington, old Ben Staley was merely a fly on an elephant's ass. But if Ben could get away with this intransigence, employees all over the world might get it in their heads to go out on their own. So, in Covington's view, the fly had to be swatted.
    "Well, young man," the witness said, "that just tells me old Ben should'a stayed with me instead of going out on his own and bitin' the hand that's been feedin' him." One juror actually nodded in agreement, sending a rivulet of perspiration down Jesse's forehead and into his left eye. "And don't forget that every sale Ben's made has taken money straight out of my pocket. Don't also forget while you're at it, that this here region is where CalCorp was born."
    "We'll come to that, Mr. Covington. I'm just saying that your pockets are pretty deep compared with Ben's. Or looking at it another way, if Ben's sales had been ten-thousand times bigger than they were, your revenue wouldn't be dented by so much as one percent. Am I right?"
    "Objection," shouted Crandell. "Conjectural and irrelevant."
    "Withdrawn, Your Honor," said Jesse, relieved to have provoked the objection he'd counted on. He didn't have a clue if his numbers were accurate, but knew the impression on the jury would stick. "Tell me, sir, do you claim that Ben's sales were all made to retailers named on your secret list of customers?"
    "I do," Covington said, with the solemnity of a wedding vow, "and secret was your word, not mine. I'd call it 'proprietary.'"
    "So," Jesse said, "the list isn't a secret after all?"
    Covington's face reddened slightly at his misstep, and Jesse saw a faint sheen of sweat forming on the massive forehead and bare scalp. Progress.
    "Doesn't matter what you call it, young man. They were my customers!"
    "Your customers," Jesse echoed, nodding slowly, and facing the jury. "I'm beginning to see what happened here, sir. Ben Staley confused himself into thinking he was operating in a competitive free-enterprise system."
    "Objection, Your Honor," whined Covington's attorney.
    "Withdrawn," said Jesse, noticing that two of the jurors were scrutinizing the CEO, eyebrows angled in confusion. Jesse knew he had chipped away at the edifice, but would need the Big Finish to bring the building down.
    Jesse walked closer, invading the man's space. "Mr. Covington, I want you to talk to the jury about what else Ben Staley has done that's got you so upset."
    Every trial lawyer's objective is control—of the witness, the adversary, even the judge—and Jesse was feeling his way toward it.
    The witness flashed Jesse a look that said nobody tells Cal Covington who to talk to or what to talk about, but he drew a deep breath and said, "Well, he was telling CalCorp customers he could sell them the identical product that CalCorp sold, but for much less money."
    Jesse recoiled in mock surprise. "With the result that people like these jurors would be able to pay less for new tires and other auto parts, is that it? Gosh, Mr. Covington, no wonder you were disturbed."
    "Your Honor," shouted Norman Crandell.
    "Move on, Mr. Hall," the judge said.
    "Listen here, Counselor," Covington bellowed, "we lost every one of those customers because the man was cutting his prices to the bone with the clear intention of putting us out of business!"
    Jesse faced the jury. "Putting the world's largest supplier of auto parts out of business? Tell me, sir, was old Ben Staley using a sling and sharp rocks by any chance?"
     Five jurors laughed out loud and the judge, struggling to contain her own amusement, said, "Mr. Hall—"
     "Sorry, Judge. I'll change the subject." The jury's reaction told Jesse it was time to set up his ace. "Let's go back, Mr. Covington, and talk about how you turned CalCorp from a local Bay Area wholesaler into a Fortune 500 company."
    "Objection, Your Honor," said Crandell. "It's Ben Staley's history that is at issue in this trial, not the injured party's."
    "No, no, Norman," said Covington, overruling his lawyer, "I'd like these good people to know what it was like building a company from scratch." Here came the teeth again, the Good Old Boy back in his comfort zone.
    "First thing I did," Covington continued, "was to surround myself with people smarter than me, which turned out to be easier than I had hoped." Jesse glanced at the stolid-faced jurors, who he hoped were no longer in the thrall of the big man's fake humility. "Good people, plus wise investments, prudent budgetary restraints, hard work, and if I say so myself, some damned good decision making."
    "But who gave you your start?"
    "Nobody. Hell, I'm a self-starter. I worked twenty-four-seven startin' back thirty-five years ago and I still do."
    Jesse slowly shook his head, his eyes wide with feigned admiration. He had a glimpse of the Big Finish now and, if he could keep stoking the plaintiff's ego, maybe a way to get there.
    "Impressive," Jesse said. "Give us a typical day. At the beginning, I mean."
    "Typical day? No such thing. I was either borrowing money, making sales calls, down on my knees with suppliers and wholesalers, whatever I had to do to stay afloat." Covington threw his shoulders back and grinned at the jury.
    "You did it all," Jesse said.
    "Damned right. No sales force in those days."
    "But how exactly did you build your business?"
"Burnin' up shoe leather and a seventy-two Ford. Cold calls eight hours a day."
    "Trying to win new customers? Offering good service at a fair price?"
    "Never be undersold was my motto," Covington said, smiling again.
    "What's your motto now, Mr. Covington? 'Undersell me and I'll bury you in litigation?'"
    "Withdrawn," Jesse said. Time to play his ace. "Here's my problem, sir. When you started out, you didn't get your customers just by burning shoe leather and driving around in your seventy-two Ford, right? You looked in the Yellow Pages under 'auto parts dealers', so you'd know where to go, who to call on?"
    The witness straightened and narrowed his eyes. "I burned the midnight oil, is what I did, counselor—studyin' industry magazines and looking at newspaper advertisements, that sort of thing. Wasn't just the Yellow Pages."
    "Really? Let's go back to the secret customer list you claim Ben stole from you. What about AAA Auto Parts? It's the first dealer on your list. Is that company listed in the Yellow Pages?"
    "How would I know?"
    Jesse walked back to counsel table where he picked up a copy of the Yellow Pages and had the clerk mark it for identification. Jesse approached the witness and handed him the book along with his customer list. "Take a look, sir. Is AAA also listed there in the Yellow Pages?"
    After a quick look, Covington agreed it was.
    "How about the next one, Astro Auto? It's there, too, isn't it?"
    "Appears to be," the witness grudgingly admitted, his hard eyes flickering with anger.
    "Well, let's save some time. Is any company on your secret customer list not also listed in the local Yellow Pages?"
    Covington said, "No, but so what? The important thing is that my list consists of the kind of companies a wholesaler wants to deal with."
    "Really? Then tell the jury how many companies listed in the Yellow Pages were not 'the kind of companies a wholesaler wants to deal with?'"
     Covington stared at both listings. He crossed and uncrossed his legs and then stared some more. His mouth opened and then closed again.
    "Mr. Covington?" Jesse said gently. "Should I repeat the question?"
    "I…don't see any," the witness said, at last, so quietly Jesse barely heard him. It's over, thought Jesse. The jury doesn't know it yet, but Cal Covington does.
    "Did you say something, sir? We couldn't hear you."
    Covington flared. "I said I don't see any."
    "That's better. Please tell the jury how many auto parts dealers are on your secret list in this region?"
    "Forty-seven," Covington said, scanning it quickly with an impatience that said he just wanted it over with.
    "The exact number of dealers listed in the Yellow Pages, right?"
    "Hell, I don't know. I didn't count 'em."
    "Maybe not," Jesse said, "but I did." He took the book away from Covington and handed it to his lawyer. "The record will show it's forty-seven. The two listings are identical. Your so-called proprietary customer list is simply a list of auto parts companies that advertise in the Yellow Pages."
    Jesse moved in for the kill. "So it wasn't shoe leather that built your list, was it, Mr. Covington? It was your fingers. You let your fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages. Just like Ben did."
    Although the case continued, everyone in the courtroom knew it had ended during Jesse's cross-examination of Cal Covington. The jury only deliberated long enough to select a foreman—about twenty minutes—before returning with a defense verdict.
                           •                           •                           •
    Jesse returned to the office and his secretary handed him a message. "Simon Bradshaw heard the news. Ten o'clock tomorrow morning. His office." She winked and said, "And Jesse, he sounded very happy!"
   Jesse smiled. He had done everything they'd asked of him and if Driver tried to stop his election to partnership now, he would be hooted down by other members of the executive committee.
    Partnership. Seven years of hard work and sacrifice was about to pay off.

Chapter Two

    After a fitful night's sleep, Jesse caught the elevator to the penthouse level and entered Bradshaw's office. Although Jessed liked and admired his mentor, he was always appalled by the sheer opulence of Simon's immense L-shaped office. A twelve-foot ceiling was broken by an enormous skylight through which sunlight slanted onto fine Persian rugs and a fortress of a desk made of flawless Brazilian rosewood. Jesse didn't hold Simon Bradshaw's inherited wealth and Brahmin manner against him, for Simon had revealed his empathetic side early on, standing firmly behind Jesse's pro bono commitment even when it had earned him the enmity of his more conservative partners.
        But as Jesse entered the lavish office this time, he was shocked to see his antagonist, Eric Driver—the man's bald, pit-bull head sunk into his narrow shoulders—sitting next to Calvin fucking Covington!
    "I think," said Driver, flashing a malevolent smile, "you men have met?"
Heat spread through Jesse's body and his heart seemed to fly loose in his chest. Had Covington bitched about his tactics at trial? Was Jesse about to be sacked?
    "Call me Cal," Covington said, with a wink.
    "Because 'everybody does,' right?" Jesse said, determined to appear cool no matter what.
    Covington let out a yelp and extended his hand to Jesse. "Damn! I love this kid," he said, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. "He didn't buy my bullshit and neither did the jury."
    And I still don't, Jesse thought, but managed a smile as he shook a hand the size of a catcher's mitt. He glanced at Simon Bradshaw, hoping for a clue, but Bradshaw only smiled and wrapped an avuncular arm around Jesse's shoulder.
    "Cal has retained C&S as his outside general counsel, Jesse," Bradshaw announced. "His CFO is next door meeting with the heads of our business department as we speak, working on the company's quarterly SEC report, which Eric will oversee. I will be supervising CalCorp's general litigation world-wide."
    "If you can't beat 'em," mused Cal, "you best join 'em. I like the way you handled yourself, Hall. You ate my lawyer alive, and once I got done lickin' my wounds, I figured C&S was the place for me and CalCorp."
    Jesse nodded, everything suddenly clear. Nothing was more seductive to a litigant than the lawyer who had just handed him his ass on a platter. It was also clear that this was not Jesse's welcome-to-partnership meeting.
    "Let's move into my conference area," Bradshaw said, and Jesse awkwardly followed the three older men. Bradshaw led the way, stylish as usual, turned out today in a grey pinstripe suit, white shirt, and a pearl grey silk tie color-coordinated with his short-cropped hair. The senior partner's face was ordinary, but for penetrating dark eyes that pulled you in and made you forget the rest. In any case, the way he carried himself said he didn't care much about how his face looked and you shouldn't either. He knew, as did everybody else at C&S, that he was the smartest guy in any room he occupied.
    Bradshaw seated himself at the head of an elegant, ten-foot long Mediterranean table adjacent to a fully equipped wet-bar, and beckoned Covington to a chair next to him. Jesse took a seat beside Driver on the other side of the table and mused at the contrast between Bradshaw and the stubby Driver, whose own suit was a hopelessly wrinkled brown herringbone suit that seemed to change colors when he turned sideways. He dressed as if he hated his clothes and the time it took to put them on. Jesse once speculated to a friend that Driver resented him not only because of his preoccupation with justice for the poor, but because he, Jesse, wore socks that matched. Yet despite his short stature and disheveled manner, Driver's encyclopedic mind and rainmaking skills made him indispensable to the firm.
    "Something to drink, Cal?" Simon Bradshaw asked.
    "Just a Coke if you got one," Cal said.
    Bradshaw poured a Coke into a frosted glass and handed it to Covington. He then turned to Jesse. "Cal has a little favor, Jesse, one I'm sure you'll be happy to do for him."
    Covington said, "Jesse, they got my boy Kevin in prison in Guatemala. Eric here tells me you're smart and studied the ol' Española in college, so I need you to run down there and check out the lawyer I've hired to defend him. Make sure he's the best."
    Jesse blinked, glanced at Simon—who had shut down the firm's Central American branch because of the rampant violence and gang-slayings of American citizens—but Simon was nodding his agreement.
    "I…I don't know, Mr. Cov—" Jesse began, but Driver cut him off.
    "I was just telling Cal that you're the perfect man for this, Jesse!"
    "And I agree," added Simon. "Here is what we know. Cal's son is accused of killing a popular free-lance writer—a left-wing activist—who was accusing the Vice-President of Guatemala of corruption. Woman named Marisa Andrade"
    Marisa Andrade! Jesse had long admired the famous human rights advocate. And these people expected him to travel to a dangerous third world country to help the son of a Texas bullshitter who might have murdered her?
    "I'm swamped at the moment, Mr. Covington," Jesse said. "and my Spanish is rusty."
    Simon pushed his glasses up on his nose. "This is no time for modesty, Jesse. The lawyer retained by Cal's old firm says most people think the Vice President—Carano is his name—had young Covington arrested to cover his own action in ordering her assassination."
    Cal Covington added, "I'm concerned my son ain't gonna get a fair shake down there."
    Eric Driver rose to leave. "I'd better go meet with your people, Cal, but like I said, if you're looking for a fair shake in court, Jesse's your man. His lust for justice is absolutely…rapacious." Only Jesse caught Driver's mocking grin, a grin that told Jesse the bastard had found yet another method for getting rid of an unwanted associate: send him on a fool's errand to an out-of-control country like Guatemala, and hope for the worst.
    Covington beamed. "Well, thanks, Eric. Nobody is more deserving of justice than my son," he said, reaching for his wallet, "and he's the apple of his mother's eye. Here's a picture."
    "Good," Bradshaw said, accepting the small photo sealed in yellowed plastic as Driver left the room, "let's have a look at him."
    "Not him. Her. This here's a picture of his sainted mother, Blanche, the apple of my eye. Ain't she somethin'?"
    Jesse stared at the unremarkable photo of a small, thin woman about Covington's age with a beatific smile and lively eyes that nearly spared her from being hopelessly plain.
    "She looks…very nice," Jesse managed. "Beautiful eyes."
    "Married twenty-six years," Cal said, his eyes glistening as he put the photo back in his wallet. "We have two other sons, both adopted. Mickey and Sam. They're both deaf, but smart as hell and great kids. Blanche has been deaf since birth, but I never notice it anymore. Hell, I can sign nearly as fast as she can, which is good 'cause my little gal will talk your leg off."
    Maybe he had misjudged the man, Jesse thought, and decided he'd cut him some slack, at least for now.
    Jesse nodded, but it was clear Covington would talk all day about his wife if they let him. "What do they claim Kevin's motive was?"
    Covington finished off his Coke and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "My lawyer down there—a guy named Juan Domínguez—says the cops claim Kevin was sleeping with the victim. She was married to some big-shot law professor who they say must have found out about it. When she broke it off, Kevin got pissed and killed her. All of it pure horseshit, of course."
    "Has Kevin had any previous trouble with the law?"
    "Hell no. He's the sweetest, most honest kid in the world. Spends all his vacation time in New Orleans helping to rebuild houses. When he's at home, he spends weekends at Glide Memorial helpin' out in a soup kitchen. Takes after his mother obviously."
    "Did Kevin know Marisa Andrade?" Jesse asked.
    "Domínguez says he might have met her once when she interviewed him."
    "Why was the victim interviewing him and why was he in Guatemala?"
    "Kevin works for CalCorp," Cal said. "We've got twelve stores scattered around Central America, two in Guatemala City. He was down there checkin' them out. I don't know why she would have interviewed him or even if she did."
    Bradshaw rose, signaling the end of the meeting, and handed Jesse an envelope. "Inside is your first class ticket on American, leaving tomorrow with an open return. I can't imagine it will take more than a day or two to vet Kevin's local counsel, but if you decide he's not top of the line, spend another day and retain a lawyer who is."
    "Money's no object, Jesse," Covington added. "If Domínguez ain't the big dog with the brass collar in Guatemala City, you dump him. Here's some clippings about the case and the victim, plus some legal-type info Domínguez sent me."
    Jesse scanned the package and said, "I see from this article on top that the victim was reporting on the discovery of an ancient document purporting to grant half the country back to Guatemala's Mayan people. What's that about?"
    "She supported the land grant's authenticity," Cal said, "but it's got nothin' to do with the case. Domínguez says it's all bullshit anyways."
    Nothing to do with the case? "Maybe it's bullshit," Jesse said, "but if the victim was supporting a document that would split the country in two, she had to be making powerful enemies in the government."
    Cal shrugged. Bradshaw nodded. Jesse smiled. He felt himself warming to the project. Driver may have put a monkey wrench in rise to partnership and his pro bono activities, but if Covington and his local guy were even half right, this was a case screaming for justice.