Supreme Ambitions: A Book Review

David Lat, of Above the Law and Underneath Their Robes fame, has released his first novel, Supreme Ambitions. The protagonist, Audrey Coyne, is a smart but socially underdeveloped baby lawyer. After graduating from Harvard and Yale Law School, Audrey takes a clerkship with her judicial idol, Judge Christina Wong Stinson, a rare conservative on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Audrey’s dream is to one day clerk for a Supreme Court justice, and she thinks Judge Stinson may be her ticket to that prestigious clerkship and the perks that come with it.

But clerking isn’t all Audrey thought it would be. Naïve Audrey believes law is all about applying cases and statutes to the facts, but she quickly begins to see there’s more to law than she thought. And her boss, Judge Stinson, isn’t all Audrey imagined she’d be either. Judge Stinson’s behavior ranges from disengaged (barely editing drafts of important opinions) to hypercritical (chastising Audrey for failing to italicize the period in id. citations), and she seems to see her position as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

As the novel progresses, Audrey finds herself acting more and more like Judge Stinson, allowing her ambition to cloud her sense of right and wrong. Ultimately, Judge Stinson makes a decision anathema to Audrey, who must decide whether to keep her mouth shut to further her Supreme (Court) ambitions or follow her instincts.

On the surface, Supreme Ambitions is a fun, light read. But its seeming irreverence masks its treatment of some important and seedier issues in the law. Through Audrey, Lat addresses the treatment of women in law. Audrey frequently chastises others who call Judge Stinson a “bitch”:

An ambitious woman, when she acts forcefully in pursuit of her ambition, gets derided as a “shrew,” or a “bitch,” or a “political hack”….Meanwhile, a similarly ambitious man gets praised for his “drive” or “determination,” or for having the “courage of his convictions” if he acts in a partisan fashion.

Judge Stinson herself acknowledges that she can be difficult and demanding but chalks her demeanor up to the gender imbalance in law practice, noting that to succeed, women must be meaner and more aggressive than their male counterparts. Judge Stinson and Audrey speak many times about the difficulties women face, with Judge Stinson telling Audrey: “To be a successful professional woman, you need to be a little monstrous.”

The cases Audrey handles while clerking for Judge Stinson center on hot-button political issues—such as immigration and gay marriage—and Audrey, her co-clerks, and friends spend considerable time discussing the legal theories to support each side, making Supreme Ambitions timely and interesting to those who follow high-profile cases. And Supreme Ambitions also looks at the human element of the issues; specifically, the difficulty faced by gay and lesbian clerks who have trouble squaring their personal views with those of their conservative judges.

Some aspects of Audrey’s background and her experiences mirror those of Lat, and I suspect Supreme Ambitions reflects a Latian view of the relationship between law and politics. Those who’ve practiced for any period of time are aware of these issues, but non-lawyers and young lawyers may be surprised to learn just how much race, gender, public relations savvy, and politics play into every aspect of law, from judicial appointments to the outcome of high-profile cases.

The plot and conclusion of Supreme Ambitions are foreseeable, if not downright expected, but don’t take away from the reader’s enjoyment. I generally stay away from books about lawyers and law—I get enough of both in my day job. But even folks like me will enjoy Supreme Ambitions, which has the right mix of entertaining characters, current events, and campy, ATL-esque legal gossip to be supremely enjoyable.

Supreme Ambitions is out now.

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