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Book review: Divorce case allows glimpse into amusing law firm matters

August 13, 2014
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By Cynthia Baker

It begins with a ten year old’s Happy New Year greeting to her grandpa, including the sentence, “Mommy and Daddy are cranky.” It ends with a brief reminder on a lawyer’s personal legal stationary. In between these handwritten notes, “The Divorce Papers” tells a story about a divorce through legal documents, emails, court filings, news articles, a psychiatric report, statutes, judicial opinions, billable hour reports, invitations, and, of course, offers and counter-offers.

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Through the divorce of Dr. Daniel Durkheim and Maria “Mia” Mather Meiklejohn Durkheim, Susan Rieger’s novel introduces a wonderful cast of characters to

uched by the Durkheim divorce. More important, the novel invites readers to explore the threads of love and respect that can transcend a dead marriage. This humorous and touching novel sometimes positively glistens with the wit of smart lawyers, the love between husbands and wives and exes and parents and children, and the fresh ambition of a lawyer who is just trying to do her job (and make partner).

Set in 1999 in the fictional state of Narragansett (state statutes, judicial opinions, and law schools included), the novel’s main character, Sophie Diehl, is an associate at the prestigious mid-sized law firm of Traynor Hand and Wyzanski. Due to the absence of the partners who usually handle divorces, or, as the partners like to say, “matrimonial matters,” 29-year-old associate Sophie handles the intake interview for Mrs. Durkheim, the daughter of one of the law firm’s most important clients. Sophie is not a divorce lawyer.
Unlike her client, who was surprised by her husband’s filing of divorce proceedings after eighteen years of marriage (“I thought we’d live unhappily ever after,” writes Mia), Sophie almost expects her romantic relationships to end in disappointment. While Mia weighs the impact of her divorce on her only daughter, Sophie reflects on the impact of her parents’ divorce on her professional ambitions and personal relationships. The correspondence between, to, and from these two women provides the novel’s framework.

Its texture benefits from the fact that the author is a lawyer, has taught law at the undergraduate and law school level, and, has been through a divorce. Early in her legal career, Rieger taught a legal writing class that required her to create hypotheticals for her law students, including writing statutes, cases, assignments and inventing clients and law firms. After her own divorce, Rieger began her work on “The Divorce Papers,” which took years to write and additional years to complete. This blending of law and life, the lawyer and the divorcee, the real and the fictional, grounds the novel in what lawyers know and live.

While the always-so-clever, New Englandy pretentiousness of the correspondence can be a little unbelievable at times, it certainly entertains. For example, the wit, literary allusions, and personal insights contained in the inter-office legal memos between Sophie and her mentor/partner David Greaves are just beyond the pale of what busy lawyers would be able to do on any consistent basis. However, how else could readers appreciate the personalities, politics, and law firm dynamics of Traynor Hand and Wyzanski?

Similarly, these unrealistic aspects of the correspondence are what bring so many issues of the novel to life: sexism, racism, ageism, and, of course, the topic of all topics, love. The wonderful, wise and often hilarious email correspondence between Sophie and her best friend, while perhaps beyond belief in terms always being so “on,” does a wonderful job inviting readers into the relationships of many of the novel’s characters. And, while a divorce where money is really not at issue is difficult to believe, the Durkheim divorce is exactly that. However, this stretch of the imagination allows readers, like the divorcing parties, to focus on matters of ego and desire (which are really more interesting topics than money anyway, right?).

Finally, readers who are lawyers might especially enjoy watching the lawyers in the novel deal with each other, from law office management to professional development and retaining clients. For example, some of the novel’s correspondence sheds light on the bias and reputations of lawyers based on their respective alma maters and judicial clerkships, stereotypes connected to the sorts of law that lawyers practice, and even generational differences within the practice of law. With these candid views of what lawyers often take for granted, Rieger invites all readers, lawyers included, to laugh at themselves and some of the funnier aspects of the legal profession.

I can count the epistolary novels I’ve read on one hand: Nik Bantok’s “Griffin and Sabine,” Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” and C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters.” “The Divorce Papers” makes five. While it may not rise to the acclaim of its predecessors on my little list, I enjoyed it very much. I think many in our legal community would too.•

Cynthia Baker is a Clinical Professor of Law at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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