A Conflict of Interest

Image of A Conflict of Interest
Release Date: 
May 16, 2011
Gallery Books
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At age 35, Alex Miller has the big items checked off. Graduated Yale, then Harvard Law. Married. Youngest to make partner at the big New York law firm. Has a five-year-old daughter he loves.

At his father’s funeral it’s clear he makes more in a week than he father would have made in many years. But his father was happy and worshiped his mother, 12 years his junior and still stunning. Not so for Alex. After the service, Michael Ohlig, the man who encouraged Alex’s father all those years ago to ask out his mother, wants his professional help. As Alex is a criminal defense attorney, that probably spells big money for the law firm.

It’s a white-collar crime: Did Ohlig know a stock he was selling was a dog, but continued to push it on unsuspecting investors? If this were a Grisham novel, Alex would be defending the bilked investors. But then they can’t pay like Michael Ohlig.

The look inside big-time law is fascinating; as a criminal defense attorney, the author really knows his stuff. At the initial meeting Alex introduces what the firm calls the most important witness in the case: Mr. Green.

He asks for a million dollar retainer because the U.S. Attorney might freeze assets, and the law firm wants money up front. And the billable hours start ticking.

At the first meeting of the joint defense group—because there’s more folks than Ohlig that will need a defense—there are 10 lawyers, all of whom have associates with them. Alex predicts it will easily cost $10,000 an hour, although everybody will bill it as a two-hour meeting.

At a $40,000 lunch there are complaints about oatmeal raisin cookies because they aren’t chocolate chip. If the lawyers go home after 6:00 P.M. they use a car service; “working dinners” are at fancy restaurants. When they fly to Florida to meet with the client, they stay at the Four Seasons. And yes, it’s all billed.

When lawyer-talk is explained, it can be quite funny. When the government offers immunity, it’s called “Queen for a Day.” Who will take it and rat out the others? The judge handling the arraignment is “a barely living symbol to both the Constitutional framers’ wisdom and short-sightedness in bestowing lifetime appoints to federal judges.”

The plot starts out slowly and only hits its stride while inside the courtroom. Alex is a brilliant attorney; every time the government seems to have incontrovertible evidence, he can explain it away. He is completely focused on winning, and knowingly blurs the lines between the right thing to do and the one that will put his client in the best light. (Insert lawyer joke here.) When a key witness disappears, Alex doesn’t want to know what happened to him.

But the case’s verdict is not the end.

Outside the courtroom Alex is rootless. He’s Jewish and celebrates Christmas. He has no friends, no siblings. He rewards his college roommate by referring clients. He finds no solace in his wife. She is a painter, but she has not painted anything since the birth of their daughter. When he asks for the smartest (also the most beautiful) associate on this case, it’s clear where that is going to end up.

There are a lot of plot twists at the end in which Alex gets to show off, and if the book had gotten there more quickly it would be a thrilling read.

Mr. Mitzner is a writer to watch. Get in on the ground floor.