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An insider's look at the high-stakes world of law

Kermit Roosevelt, a professor and kin of Theodore, has crafted a first novel about the real-life complexities of the judicial system.

June 06, 2005|Joann Loviglio | Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — As he answers the door of his downtown Philadelphia home, Kermit Roosevelt simultaneously offers a warm handshake and an instant apology.

"The place is a little messy," he says. "It's the end of the semester."

The fact that his home appears, to the eye of an organizationally challenged visitor, to be more orderly than many houses after an ambitious spring cleaning is probably telling of the time-management skills necessary to work in Ivy League academia and publish a novel that's generating interest weeks before hitting stores.

Roosevelt, 33, the great-great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt and an assistant professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, has written his first novel, "In the Shadow of the Law," released this month.

Set in a prominent Washington law firm, the book follows a group of attorneys assigned to a pair of cases: a pro-bono death penalty case and a class-action lawsuit against a powerful chemical company after an explosion that killed dozens of workers.

The story is shaped by a compelling cast of overworked associates and powerful partners, whose experiences offer insight into the legal system and how it affects not only them, but also the people and communities affected by their actions.

"I wanted to look at the different ways that these cases get treated by the legal system -- one involving a large corporation, the other a single individual who doesn't have the same sort of resources," Roosevelt says. "I wanted to give a lot of perspective on the legal system and the roles that people play and the choices they have to make."

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly praised "In the Shadow of the Law" as an "outstanding debut" by an "exciting new voice." Kirkus Reviews called it "entertaining if a little long-winded," and the Buzz Girl blog (written by a BookPage correspondent) dubbed it a "big deal debut."

"Most novels by lawyers about the law tend to be very once-over-lightly; this is not," said Farrar, Straus and Giroux President and Publisher Jonathan Galassi, Roosevelt's editor.

He said that Roosevelt is the first novelist writing about the law for the publishing house since Scott Turow, also an attorney, who made a big splash in 1987 with his debut novel, "Presumed Innocent." Galassi said that "In the Shadow of the Law" is not, as some have categorized it, a Turow-esque "legal thriller."

"It has suspense in it, cases with unresolved issues, but it's really a kind of anatomy of different attitudes about the law embodied in these very attractive, believable characters," Galassi said. "It's the combination of the characters and their different approaches to law that make it so absorbing."

Neither Roosevelt nor his publisher draw attention to the author's presidential lineage, but refer to his curriculum vitae.

Roosevelt (known to friends as Kim) teaches courses in constitutional law and conflict of laws. Before that, he practiced appellate litigation at a Chicago firm and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter and Judge Stephen F. Williams of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., he was a presidential scholar at the prestigious St. Albans School. He got his law degree from Yale University in 1997 after graduating summa cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in philosophy.

He first considered teaching philosophy but set his sights on law after getting some practical advice from his parents.

"They said I would probably be at a small college, working on things only five people understood and only three people cared about, and I think they were right," he says. "Constitutional law is much more engaged in the world."

One of Roosevelt's professors at Yale law school, Akhil Reed Amar, said his former student thinks in a way that naturally makes him a talented storyteller as well as an accomplished legal scholar.

"Kim is a chess champion ... he can play blindfolded, and there's a cleverness to his mind that's clearly in this book," he said. "It's like an intricate little puzzle, cleverly plotted and engaging, with these great characters."

The novel is not a roman a clef, Roosevelt says, but it is informed by his experiences as a law student, a judicial clerk and a practicing attorney. Although it's the first piece of fiction he has had published, it is not the first he has written.

"It's probably my fourth; the others were more literary in their aspirations. They're in a desk drawer, which is probably where they belong," he says with a laugh.

There are no immediate plans for another novel; for the time being, Roosevelt's writings about the law will likely remain in the scholarly realm -- time management only goes so far, after all.

"I'm up for tenure in two years," he says.

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