Our blog has moved, and is new and improved.

You should be automatically redirected in 3 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Monday, October 15, 2007

'Michael Clayton' provides an interesting view of in-house work

I recently saw the new George Clooney movie, Michael Clayton. Clooney portrays a lawyer at a big firm who has a nebulous role various described as a "miracle worker" and a "janitor." The closest description would be that he is a "fixer." Your client was involved in a DWI? Call Clayton and he'll mop up afterward.

Clayton is burned out, but in debt, so he can't get out from under this role he hates. At one point he begs the managing partner to put him into litigation, but the partner refuses, essentially saying that good litigators are a dime a dozen, but great fixers are much rarer. At another point, a lawyer notices that Clayton has been with the firm for 17 years, but is not a partner. Instead, he has the amorphous title "special counsel." It's almost comical when she asks rhetorically, "Who is this guy?"

However, the character who most intrigued me was not Clayton, but the general counsel for U/North, a corporate client of the firm. U/North is the subject of a multi-billion-dollar class action suit brought by farmers whose well water was poisoned by its product. U/North's general counsel, Karen Crowder (very ably played by Scottish actress Tilda Swinton), is desperately trying to prove herself by achieving a successful result in the case. Her predecessor in the job recently was bumped up to the boardroom, and she wants to demonstrate the company's faith in promoting her to general counsel to replace him was justified.

Crowder is high energy and extremely efficient at what she does. There are some great scenes juxtaposing her confidently speaking in an interview with her at home earlier in the day nervously rehearsing her responses. In her practice run, she has trouble coming up with a response to the anticipated life-balance question, until she reaches the very telling conclusion that having a good job is life balance.

Her interview is interrupted midway through when she learns that the outside counsel handling the class-action suit, a litigator from Clayton's firm, has stripped down naked during a deposition and announced that he is "Shiva, goddess of death." The law firm immediately dispatches Clayton to handle the problem. Meanwhile, once it becomes clear the lawyer having the "episode" is about to release to the world a smoking-gun memo establishing U/North's complicity in poisoning the wells, Crowder calls some fixers of her own. These gentlemen's methods are, shall we say, a little less polished than Clayton's.

What I liked most about Crowder was that she is a completely believable character. She straddles the line and then goes over it to zealously represent her in-house employer. (The memo does not even implicate her, but her old boss and the top corporate officers.) Despite her protect-the-company-at-all-costs mentality, she is an understandable and even in some ways sympathetic character. One can't help thinking that if she had a better life balance, things might have turned out differently. Her character says a lot about the banality of evil -- and the importance of life balance.

No comments: