If you’re the type who is convinced that the people you work with in Biglaw are evil, conniving, and ready to stab you in the back with a really sharp highlighter, you will love Getting It, a novel by Daniel Shaviro. In a post titled “james joyce meets the paper chase,” an Amazon reviewer says: “If Joyce or Kafka had worked at Arnold and Porter, this would be their book.”
I’ve read a lot of lawyer fiction, but never something quite like this. The satirical novel is populated with sadistic partners and scheming associates competing for partnership, including the caddish Bill Doberman, dopey Arnold Portner, and self-involved Lowell Stellworth. It’s an “American Psycho” take on Biglaw — funny and fast-paced, a great summer quick read. I devoured it on a plane to Chicago.
Shaviro’s books are usually more taxing — he’s the Wayne Perry Professor of Taxation at NYU Law. Though he’s had many books published before — e.g., Decoding the U.S. Corporate Tax and Taxes, Spending, and the U.S. Government’s March Toward Bankruptcy — this is his first novel. Even if you didn’t study with him at NYU, you may recognize him as the man with Elena Kagan in this photo, when they were both professors at the University of Chicago.
Before becoming an academic, Shaviro worked for Caplin & Drysdale in Washington, D.C., and then went on to the Joint Committee on Taxation. He started working on the book during Congressional breaks in 1985 — his characters actually use the legal research library to Shephardize their memos — but only finished it last year. Coming back to the novel two decades later, he says that it felt at times like he was working on a collaboration with a different person — a younger version of himself.
“I’m in a different place; I could never come up with this now. It was a 20-something version of me that came up with it,” Shaviro told me. He had the inspiration of youth to start it, but had the discipline and wisdom now to finish it and cut the bad parts. “I mined the cut parts and discovered some really nice turns of phrase. I wish I could reach out to that [younger] guy and get some more material from him.”
Why is the book so fun? How did Shaviro finally finish it? And why was he in that photo with Elena Kagan?
We spoke with Professor Shaviro by phone after finishing his satirical novel. Westview News has a nice summation of the plot:
His tightly plotted page turner, Getting It, tells the story of the caddish Bill Doberman, a resourceful schemer intent on out-maneuvering his two rivals, the self-righteous New Englander Lowell Stellworth and the bumbling but honest Arnold Porter. Doberman gets into and out of one scrape after another as he tries to ingratiate himself with the powerful name-partner Cedric Cinders, satisfy the work demands of a sadistic junior partner, and successfully two-time his paralegal girlfriend with a bohemian Californian from the secretarial pool.
Shaviro made clear that the characters are not based on specific real people, but rather recognizable types in the corporate law world.
“I call it my Zelig moment,” said Shaviro. He and Kagan were then colleagues at the University of Chicago. “I dimly recall the session where the photo was taken. It was a faculty vs. students trivia contest. I’ve joked that you can tell who’s going to go to the Supreme Court between the two of us, since she’s drinking a Diet Coke and I’m having a Michelob Light.”
Back to the book. The Yale Law grad says his colleagues were initially dubious about his writing a novel. “They were horrified that this would be a novel about tax attorneys,” said Shaviro. “But I figured the public wasn’t ready for that.”
Back in 1985, Shaviro was a recent law grad with literary ambitions and lots of free time during Congressional breaks, thanks to a rather sleepy social life. He was inspired by the British satirical writer P.G. Wodehouse, whose books he would read and laugh out loud to while riding the D.C. Metro. He made nice headway on the book, but then a major tax bill passed in 1986, he met his wife, and he got distracted from working on “Getting It.”
“I wasn’t planning ahead – as government often does – and got into a rut,” said Shaviro. Fast forward more than twenty years, and Shaviro was now in New York, a published author (of academic texts), and free over the summers, thanks to his law professor gig at NYU. “Once students go home, you have time off. I picked it up and finished it over a summer.”
He figured out where it had gone wrong and got rid of some bad plot points. But he found it was harder to publish as a novelist than as an academic.
“For academic books, it’s pretty easy. I generally use university presses or the Urban Institute. I’m credible with them,” said Shaviro. “In fiction, though, I’m not a known person and I don’t really have connections.”
Instead, he self-published through the vanity press iUniverse.com.
As for inspiration, he thought of Wodehouse, but also Evelyn Waugh. Scott Turow was having success as a lawyer turned novelist in the 1980s, but Shaviro wanted to do something different.
“John Grisham wasn’t around yet. I didn’t want to write another law firm novel like that, though,” said Shaviro. “The idea of a farce or satire was more original. It was liberating to take that approach.”
People have told Shaviro it could easily be made into a movie. He could see a young James Spader type playing Lowell Stellenworth and a young Matthew Broderick type playing protagonist/antagonist Bill Doberman. He lives on the same block as Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker and has considered dropping off a copy of the book.
“Neighbors do favors for each other,” said Shaviro. “I’d give him a book. He’d give me tickets to a Broadway show.”