f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

February 27, 2008

An Almost Life — p/i lawyer Kevin Mednick’s fine first novel

Filed under: Book Reviews,lawyer news or ethics,Schenectady Synecdoche — David Giacalone @ 6:59 pm

An Almost Life” by Kevin Mednick (The Permanent Press, December 2007; 240 pp; ISBN-13: 978-1579621575; interview with the author; cover image)

Mini-Review: This first novel by lawyer Mednick is fully satisfying and genuinely successful. Its protagonist is a frank, witty, self-deprecating personal injury attorney in a small upstate New York city, who is going through midlife and mid-career crises. If you enjoy novels about (realistic) lawyers and lawyering, or you’re looking to be entertained by characters you care about, while learning a bit about the human predicament and the workings of an important (and often misunderstood) social institution, you should read An Almost Life. Despite having the “rather-be-napping” winter blahs all last week, I finished this book (which has no murderous socio-paths or life-and-death escapes driving the narrative) in two days, reading well past midnight, and wishing it were longer. (scroll down for the full review)

new novel
the sun sets
without me

… by dagosan/ david giacalone, The Heron’s Nest (March 2005)

Kevin Mednick is a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer in the small Schenectady-NY-based firm of Bendall & Mednick, which has three attorneys and a branch office in Atlanta. His publisher says Kevin’s “legal career includes stints as an Assistant District Attorney, house counsel for an insurance company, associate counsel for a large personal injury defense firm, and law clerk for a County Court Judge.”

Mednick has been with B&M for 15 years. They call themselves “Real Lawyers for Real People” in low-key tv ads and at their informative and purposefully unflashy website. Among lawyers in the New York Capital Region, Bendall & Mednick is known for doing high-quality work in complicated p/i and medical malpractice cases. When I’m asked for the name of a p/i firm by friends or acquaintances, I always suggest B&M. Nonetheless, although Kevin is only a few years younger than myself, and I pass the lovely old house that serves as his office on my way to the supermarket each week, I’ve never met him, nor spoken on the phone with Kevin, and the only internet/email correspondence we’ve had consisted of my request for a copy of his book to review here at f/k/a, and his short reply saying he had no copies but would have one sent. (I did meet the firm’s founder, James W. Bendall, once around 1990.)

In fact, I only heard about Kevin’s novel during a chance meeting with a local judge I admire, in a line at the Post Office mailing Valentine parcels, about two weeks ago. When I did a Google Blog Search later that day and found no review of the book, and no mention of it on any blawg, I decided I owed it to our town and profession to check out this novel.

What I’m trying to say, of course, is that — despite our geographic proximity and this rave review — I did not pick up this book out of devotion or friendship for Kevin or his law firm, and I doubt that he even knew my name when I contacted his firm about An Almost Life (unless I’m infamous among his p/i colleagues for my stance on standard contingency fees, or lionized for my defense of lawyer advertising and battles against the Bar’s Dignity Police).

I first heard Kevin Mednick’s voice when he was doing his weekly Real Law segment, on Thursday, February 14, 2008, on the very popular Don Weeks morning radio show on 810 WGY-AM at 7:50 AM. That segment focused on baseball steroids and Slip and Fall accidents (hear it here), and I paid particular attention because I recently experienced a slip-n-fall of my own on a neighbor’s icy sidewalk. Kevin made good sense on that topic (as does the brief description of the issues involved in S-n-F cases on the B&M website). This morning, I heard Kevin again in this interview about his practice and his novel, at B&M’s under-used weblog (which is hosted by the firm’s youngest member, Atlanta lawyer and comedy-club owner, Jamie Bendall). Frankly, though, neither exposure to Kevin — the sensible, competent p/i lawyer — made me want to brave a Schenectady winter, with its mid-February crop of potholes and slippery roads, to head down Union St. to make his acquaintance and shake his hand. However, reading An Almost Life definitely did. The author who gave the character Mike Samuels his voice is clearly worth meeting.

An Almost Life” makes it easy to answer my two basic questions when reviewing a book: 1) Was my time spent reading the book a good investment? and 2) Who (if anyone) is likely to benefit from (or enjoy) reading it?

Time Well Spent? As simple “pleasure reading,” AAL was a constant treat. The main character, Mike Samuels (who surely has a lot of Kevin Mednick in him, even if they might have had different reactions when that exotic dancer wanted to show Samuels her breast-surgery scars in his office) is recognizable, insightful, likable and entertaining. Whether he’s trying to figure out just when most of himself “stopped bothering” and started to leave for places unknown, or how his secretary can always be in such a good mood and so often save him from himself, or how to feel about the ex-wife who left him for a Bigger-Better-Deal, Samuels charms, entertains, and endears himself to the reader. Ditto when he describes his relationships with a teenage son and daughter, or with an anti-anxiety medication that somehow causes both drowsiness and insomnia, while really taking “the edge off.”

As a novel about lawyers and lawyering, An Almost Life was even more rewarding for me. As Publishers Weekly reports, when Samuels “accepts the case of Evelyn Walker, who is suing her former employer over a debilitating job-related injury, Mike is forced to shake off his ennui and get focused to defend his client.” What we are allowed to see is not the tacky tort lawyer who assaults us in tv and radio ads, nor — thankfully — the self-aggrandizing martyr-champion of the downtrodden, the whiny victim of the nasty tort-reformers, the happy-face (or chest-beating) warrior who appears so often online, or the death-defying, miracle-working hero of blockbuster books and movies. Instead, a good lawyer and good man gives us a peek at his fears and insecurities, while pointing out the foibles of others, and painlessly explaining the psychology and strategy that goes into making a personal injury negligence case and bringing it to trial.

The review in The Independent got it right:

“Despite Medrick s narrative skill in keeping readers curious about the outcome of Evelyn s case, which will be tried in a small town in upstate NY, the book s most compelling and incisively funny – sections have to do with Mike s commentary and asides on lawyers, judges, justice and contemporary culture, including the inanity of golf, the psychology of the working-class in rural America, the pathetic comedy of small-claims night court, and the fear of jurors who want to run home and barricade their doors and remove themselves from a world that’s too complicated, too confusing and too dangerous.

Four authors are quoted on the dust-jacket of An Almost Life, and have spot-on remarks. Andrew Neiderman, who wrote The Devil’s Advocate, says “Kevin Mednick’s depiction of an attorney’s stream of conscious and his capture of a distinct narrative voice enables the reader truly to appreciate the American justice system. An Almost Life is a witty, entertaining novel and a great effort by a budding new talent.” Three lawyer-novelists add their thoughts, with which I concur:

  • Bruce Ducker, author of Bloodlines, deposes and says, “Kevin Mednick’s novel is that rare combination — a great read told in spot-on prose. The staccato dialogue, the sure sense of place, and the parade of quirky characters give the reader a telling insight into the life of a small-town courthourse lawyer.”
  • John Keegan, author of A Good Divorce, opines: “Mike Samuels breaks all the old lawyer cliches — he’s self-conscious, he’s tentative, and he’s almost human. It’s as if he’s just kicking a dented beer can down the street. Mednick has a gift for self-deprecating, intelligent humor. His book is a deft exploration of the schism between who we are and what we do for a living. An Almost Life sneaks up on you and won’t let you go.” And,
  • Peter Friedman, author of Ideal Marriage, swears to tell the whole truth: “I felt myself in the hands of not only a fine story teller, but also a lawyer with a wonderful grasp of the battles that rage over every case. I don’t recall ever reading such an engaging illumination of how a trial lawyer actually makes — or doesn’t make his money. I finished An Almost Life almost regretfully, as it reads so well.”

Speaking of the dust-jacket, it is the only thing about An Almost Life that I would change. Mike Samuels might have felt as if he were invisible, but no book should be stuck with a cover image that makes the novel nearly invisible in a store display. The cover photo was taken by Kevin’s senior partner, Jim Bendall, but the kindness of that gesture does not make up for its ho-hum effect. Let’s hope the second printing, or paperback edition, has more pizazz.

A Novel for Just About Everybody. So, who do I think would benefit from An Almost Life? Just about every adult with a sense or humor and justice, and five or six hours to devote to the pleasures of a fine first novel. Read it for the sheer entertainment; for its insights into middle-aging, or finding yourself, your mate, or your place in the world; or (whether you’re a non-lawyer or an attorney looking in from another part of the profession) to get a realistic impression of the job and the role of a personal injury lawyer who is in it for more than the money and glory. I’m glad I got to meet Mike Samuels and — since he works right down the road — hope to meet his creator, before Kevin Mednick flees to that lovely land where successful lawyer-novelists dwell.

snack room —
the litigator takes
one-third of the donuts

…………………………………….. dagosan
– looking for more lawyer-related haiku? well, click that link —

p.s. I must admit that the local setting (even if masked with fictitious characters and place names) made parts of Mike Samuels’ musing even more amusing and enjoyable for me. For example, like myself, lawyer Samuels is bemused over the “party hacks” (and sports heroes) who too often get to be judges around here, despite having virtually no experience in trying or negotiating a case. [We have elected judges, but I soon found out after arriving in Schenectady that county party chairmen at times select themselves for important judgeships, and the parties often cross-endorse each other’s chosen candidates.] Don’t fear, though, the book won’t leave you disenchanted with all judges, and your living outside of upstate New York won’t reduce the experience of reading An Almost Life.

– Below the fold, you’ll find a few great quotes from An Almost Life. –

Notable Quotes from An Almost Life. I found myself nodding in agreement — or seeing the light — quite often, while reading AAL. Like when Samuels says, “The fact is I’m not aggressive. I’m competitive.” And, it wasn’t merely when Samuels notes that most lawyers wish they had never gone to law school; or when his buddy says Baby Boomers came of age when lawyers seemed to be crusaders fighting for big causes, and now practice is really such a letdown. There were many such moments, but my fingers are getting tired, and my belly hungry, so here are just a sample:

  • “Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a prizefight. You may score all the points in the world and lose.”
  • “I don’t read lawyer novels and I don’t watch lawyer TV shows. They have the double faults of being too close to the mark and just plain wrong all at once. . . . But real lawyers don’t have the luxury of focusing on one case at a time. We’re juggling, balancing, making ends meet. We’re driven not by noble inspiration to see a wrong righted but by fear of messing the case up.”

  • “I’d like to run the following ad: ‘Honest Lawyer. Better than most. Not as good as some. Gets good results, mostly. Nice guy.’ I can’t. I have to run an ad with a jingle. . . and it has to have a ‘call to action.’ . . . . Lawyer advertising is like negative political campaigning. Everyone claims they hate it, but it works.”
  • “Neurotics hate being told there’s nothing to worry about. It drives us crazy.”

  • “Lawyers procrastinate. I’ve told you that already but I putt off telling you why. . . . . I procrastinate because I am afraid. What I am afraid of is the very thing that drives lawyers to nervous tics and early graves. I’m afraid I’ve missed it. ‘It’ is the main issue, the one thing you must convince the jury of if you’re to prevail. . . . For solo practitioners, ‘it’ has three heads, nice arms, weighs four tons, and can run faster than a locomotive. ‘It’ is the gatekeeper to our worst nightmares.”
  • “People not only despise lawyers, they find it laughable that someone else might not.”

  • “It’s a perfect irony. The plaintiff begins the process certain he’s not the kind of guy who sues and ends up getting screwed by jurors who are just like him and are therefore certain he is.”
  • “People pick on my client’s. Yes they do. They attacked individuals who have themselves been attacked . . . . So, when they come after my clients, I fight back. One nasty word from opposing counsel and I’m into it. It’s an involuntary reaction.”
  • “Trial can last a month and I’m clawing and scratching the entire time. That’s why trials are so exhausting. It’s not the work, it’s the attitude.”

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