Paralegal chic in 'The Official Lawyer's Handbook'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In Washington, a city where lawyers are as plentiful as seeds in raspberry jam, paralegal chic is a best seller. T-shirts printed with naughty jokes about lawyers are a big merchandising hit. One museum gift shop offers Shakespeare's satiric line, ''Let's kill all the lawyers,'' printed on a variety of holiday gifts. And Jackson Browne's musical spoof, ''Lawyers in Love,'' has been at the top of the top-10 charts.

Now along comes the real thing, ''The Official Lawyer's Handbook,'' a paperback written by a practicing lawyer (who bills himself as D. Robert White, Esq.) in the style of ''The Official Preppy Handbook.'' It just may be the pro bono stocking stuffer of the season. After only two weeks in print, it had climbed halfway up the Washington best-seller list. Its author, Dan White, has just had his last laugh as an associate at the well-known Washington firm of Hogan & Hartson. Mr. White twits the legal establishment in his handbook, which even devotes a chapter to lawyers and humor, a topic covered in his entry on one of his favorite words: ''oxymoron'' (meaning a contradiction in terms).

Speaking of the high seriousness of a profession that routinely deals in wills, taxes, divorces, and other sobering subjects, White asserts, ''There are no funny lawyers - only funny people who made career mistakes.''

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He adds: ''The fact that lawyers are not the source of much humor in the world does not mean they cannot enjoy a good joke told by someone else. Lawyers laugh long and hard at jokes told by judges, wealthy clients, and Internal Revenue Service examiners.'' That gives you an idea of White's style; caveat emptor, if you're buying it as a gift for your uncle, the solicitor general, who takes his work very seriously. (White suggests in one of his 10 principles of legal writing, ''Never use English where Latin mutatis mutandis will do.'')

White's playful book includes chapters on determining your legal quotient, getting into the right law school, getting through the right law school, summer clerkships, the bar exam, judicial clerkships, recruiting, how to survive (and make partner) in your law firm, the lawyerly look, alternative routes, women and the law, drafting legal documents, the courts, legal ethics, creative billing, lawyers and romance, finding a lawyer, and a legal glossary. Already he's working on a draft of White's Law Dictionary to replace the standard text, Black's, and a client's handbook, tentatively described as ''The Fleecees.''

Dan White turns up for an interview looking flamboyantly, even baroquely, dressed for a lawyer. As he points out in his handbook, real lawyers wear blue or black suits, blue or white shirts with button-down collars, and narrow ties, preferably silk and striped, never paisley. Yet here he is, flaunting his new freedom in a pair of gray flannel trousers, navy blazer, jellybean-pink shirt, and a muted foulard tie in a navy, red, and pink print. White is a rather preppy-looking young man, with brown hair just short of auburn, bright blue eyes behind rimless glasses, and an occasional hilarious smile reminiscent of Alfred E. Newman.

White, now on a leave of absence from Hogan & Hartson, says he wrote his book on yellow legal paper, mostly early weekday mornings and Sunday nights over cream cheese, crackers, and caviar.

He says he has toyed with the idea of writing a novel on the law, but ''by and large, the more realistic the novel, the less bearable it would be . . . to the extent that, if you wanted to be stimulating, you would depart from the reality of the practice . . . . To create an interesting novel about the law would be the ultimate action of creation,'' continues the man who divides legal documents into basic categories like boring, extremely boring, or comatose. He also suggests that one of the big thrills for real lawyers is proofreading - they ''proofread street signs, magazine ads, and the little placards under each fish tank at the Boston Aquarium. Nothing makes their day like catching a typo.''

What are the qualities that make a good lawyer? ''An ability to concentrate on the most minute and picayune details.'' He grins. ''A good lawyer can concentrate endlessly on a tax brief; a normal, healthy, well-adjusted person would let his mind wander. Law offers all the animal excitement and stimulation of proofreading the warranty on your toaster oven.

'' . . . Read your own home or apartment lease. A normal person cannot do it, will ultimately sign it without any idea of what it says because it's just unreadable, absolutely. People will pay great piles of money to avoid having to do that. But the fact is: Lawyers not only read that stuff but write it and rewrite it. They can stomach it.

''They also have a high level of energy and ability to go without sleep . . . , a childlike willingness to find a pleasant environment in the dullest, drabbest circumstances, a Pollyannaish quality to bear up in the worst moments of adversity. Frank Shea of the law firm of Shea & Gardner once said, 'It is less important to be brilliant than to be careful.' That is definitely true. Law does not test your intellect . . . ; it tests your fastidiousness.''

There are a few parts of Dan White's lawyer's handbook that some readers may take exception to, finding them too arcane for the layman, the humor occasionally a bit sophomoric, or the tone too cynical. The chapters on ''How to Fix a Traffic Ticket'' and ''The Creative Art of Billing,'' outlining some extremely dubious cooking of the billing books, are cases in point.

Are they simply overbroad satire?

''The humor of it is the extent to which it rings true,'' White says. ''It wouldn't be humorous if it had no reality basis. People laugh at that and say, 'That's right!' Needless to say, there's caricature, exaggeration. But again there has to be a germ of truth for it to be humorous. . . . When you get into the question of whether lawyers' bills are justified, the answer is absolutely. They should be paid five times what they are paid. Nobody should have to do what lawyers do; it's inhuman.'' He pauses. ''My father will cringe when he reads this.''

White is a fourth-generation lawyer, his father a trial advocate litigator, his grandfather a corporation lawyer. White isn't certain what kind of law his great granddaddy practiced back home in Atlanta. But they all might have cringed a bit over some of the darts D. Robert White aims at the family profession. His book is dedicated ''to Dad, my brother Ben, Aunt Mary, Uncle B.B., Uncle John, Granddad, Great Uncle Pettus, Cousin Pollard and all the other lawyers in my family.''

Their maverick issue, Dan, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, was articles editor of the Columbia Law Review, clerked for a federal judge who prefers deepest anonymity, and then ambled over to Hogan & Hartson, from which he is now in exile.

He is also out flogging (to use the public relations term) his book on radio and TV talk shows, as well as in newspaper interviews. He concludes our interview in a lawyerly way:

''Do you-all keep these tapes for purposes of libel - you know, in case I call back and decide to sue? I think it would be good insurance. A lawyer, for example, would always keep that tape. A lawyer, as a matter of fact, would have that tape transcribed and stored away. Lawyers are the ultimate keepers of memos to file. . . . A lawyer is in the business of covering their clients' posteriors and their own. Lawyers files are not full of clients' documents; they're full of their own documents to cover their hides.''

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