BabyBarista serves up a cool, dark brew-haha

By David Giacalone

[Review of Tim Kevan, BabyBarista and the Art of War (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, published August 3; about $25 including shipping from the UK to the USA; also at U.S.)]

Because I’ve retired from weblog punditry, Walter has generously let me borrow the Overlawyered pulpit to tell you about Tim Kevan’s first novel Baby Barista and the Art of War, which is based on Kevan’s Times Online weblog BabyBarista. If, as I expect, you like your summer reading laced with a generous — and consistently humorous — serving of confessional lawyer bashing, I think you’ll want to end or extend the season with this enjoyable new novel.

A chorus of rave reviews, many of them gushing out of Tim’s chummy-old-chap network of British blawgers the past two months (see, e.g., Charon QC, John Bolch, GeekLawyer, and Jacquig, plus one more sober Yank, Colin Samuels), have already well described the book and its portrait of a greedy, self-serving, mendacious Bar. So I will not go into great detail about the plot or the characters. As always, I have two basic questions when reviewing a book: 1) Was my time spent reading it a good investment? and 2) Who (if anyone) is likely to benefit from (or enjoy) reading it? For this novel, I’ll add a third question: Is there a way for folks here in the former colonies to overcome our cultural differences and get more out of BBAW?

As you can guess by now, I think my time was well-used reading BBAW. I was expecting a fun story that confirmed my belief that many avaricious lawyers tend to charge too much and serve their own interests before their clients’ needs or the demands of justice, and I got it. The well-paced and planned plot has the protagonist, the newly degreed “BabyBarista,” spending an apprenticeship year in “pupillage” to a group of barristers — trying to beat out three (and eventually four) other young lawyers for a “tenancy” position in the barristers’ chambers.

Prior reviewers have correctly noted that BabyB is far from an admirable character. As the title of the book suggests, he quickly decides that pupillage is like war, and models his behavior after the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu (plus tactics from the movie Wall Street, with a dash of the mischief and romance of Ferris Bueller). Despite occasional qualms of conscience, BabyB “plots, lies, and manipulates his way through the twelve months of pupillage” (Charon QC). Despite all his dirty tricks and the feeling that he just might become like the experienced barristers he holds in such low esteem, it is hard not to like and root for Tim Kevan’s BabyB.

Although the characters (except for BabyB’s best friend Claire) are all given merely descriptive names — i.e., OldRuin, TheBoss, TopFirst, BusyBody, Worrier, The Vamp, UpTights, OldSmoothie, etc. — Kevan gives the major figures enough depth to allow us to sympathize with some, loathe others (while also seeing their humanity), and recognize many of them from our own lives. Running feuds between several of the characters come alive through witty dialogue that often also advances the plot.

My own alter ego ethicalEsq was bemused but not surprised by UK lawyers acting very much like the worst segments of the American bar: taking huge fees for little work, entering settlements at their clients’ expense (to assure a fee, or to get to a golf course or an early lunch), exploiting underlings, disrespecting a “litigant in person” (pro se) party, making it dangerous to raise sexual harassment charges, etc. It was heartening to hear BabyB warn clients about the risks of no-win-no-fee (contingency) arrangements, and enlightening to see how personal injury claims are fabricated. For the entire 266 pages, the Bar’s foibles and vices are laid bare, but with a light (if exaggerated) touch rather than a heavy hand.

Charon QC got it right and says it better than I could:

[Tim Kevan] paints a wonderfully surreal picture of the Bar, stretching belief but at the same time leaving the reader wondering where the inspiration came from. . . .

I liked the way Tim used his experience of practice to parody different scenarios, different styles of work and personality, and some of the changes the legal profession is going through. His section on claim farms and their handling of accident claims is just wonderful. We have a judge who plays online bridge during hearings, an Insurance company which settles cases with a barrister by playing Battleships – the old game from childhood – and we have general mayhem and riot. . . .

BabyBarista is a Hogarthian romp, a parody, a satire with edge and I have no hesitation in finding for Tim Kevan and recommending it to you.

I agree with Colin Samuels at Blawg Review that the ending was “a bit too abrupt and convenient” — which is to say, I would happily have continued reading a longer, more-developed version. Colin is also correct to point out that the book becomes easier for some within the Bar to dismiss because of its “exclusive focus on the misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance within BabyBarista’s chambers without even passing looks at others.” Nonetheless, without detracting from the worrisome truth behind the satire, I think the author spends enough time on the good qualities of OldRuin and Claire to reassure the reader that not all lawyers are scoundrels, and that BabyB may redeem himself eventually. The focus on the dark side of the profession gives BBAW its bite and its comedic punch.

So, who should read this book? Any lawyer with a sense of humor and a desire to face the demons of our profession; and anyone thinking about entering the profession but worried about losing their soul in the race for money and status. Also, tort reformers and other policy wonks looking for reasons to trim the sails of the legal profession, but who don’t mind momentarily lightening up on the topic. And (despite a plethora of inside-the-profession jokes and references), Jack Cade, Dick the Butcher and the rest of the general public, who so often want to “kill all the lawyers.”

On the other hand, folks like former D.C. Bar President John C. Keeney Jr. — who blames pop culture for the profession’s bad reputation and who asked that fellow lawyers “all join me in refusing to laugh at lawyer jokes” (Washington Lawyer, November 2004) — should probably stay away. Ditto the “prudes, puritans, and professional sour-pusses” in the Bar who are easily offended by any suggestion that lawyers can be sexy or engage in sexual relations, or who don’t understand the use of irony and satire in the war against sexism.

Despite all of the above praise, I want to recommend a little more work for my weblog friend Tim Kevan. I think he could and should use his BabyBarista website, or Barrister Blog, to present an appendix to BBAW for Non-Brits. A lack of knowledge of the workings of the UK legal system detracted a bit from my understanding and enjoyment of the novel, and may also affect many other lawyers and non-lawyers outside of the UK. We need a brief description of the roles of barristers and solicitors, and how they interact, along with more details about the organization within chambers, and the legal education process.

We also need a UK to USA glossary (or a full-blown primer on UK-English as a Second Language) to explain all of the words, idioms and cultural references in BBAW that are quite foreign to Americans (especially Baby Boomers and our elders). Tim wrote last month about the problems of translating the book into Chinese. Much is lost in translation for those of us brought up on American English and culture, too.

Blame it on my lawyer personality, but I was compelled to look up an awful lot of words and phrases, for example:

  • twigged – to understand, usually after some initial difficulty
  • bovvered – from “bovver,” troublemaking or rowdiness by street gang youths (from the Cockney pronunciation of “bother”)
  • “quite likely” – a phrase used to annoy others when they ask you a question
  • Brummie – a resident of Birmingham, England
  • “not a patch on you” – not be nearly as good as somebody or something

. . . and many more words, phrases, geographic and social/class references, and other allusions (e.g., Robin Reliant) in BBAW. Reading the book was enjoyable and worthwhile, despite my ignorance of UK lore and life, but it might have been sublime if I didn’t have to scratch my head and head to Google so often.

Finally, in case you’re worried about the emotional and mental health of the legal profession after reading BBAW, you should know that Tim Kevan has written (with psychiatrist Michelle Tempest) an antidote to what ails the Bar and his BabyB. It’s called Why Lawyers Should Surf, and it uses the metaphor of surfing and the ocean flow to help lawyers find the tools to fight the profession’s high-dominance personality traits, and the “skepticism skills” that can make successful lawyers, but can bring great stress and distress to our personal lives. As the summer ends, or Labor Day ushers in more responsibilities and deadlines, let Tim wind you up with BabyBarista and the Art of War, and then soothe your psyche with lessons from ocean surfing.

Disclaimer. It was not until I finished reading the book and glanced at the Acknowledgements page that I discovered my name among well over a hundred people Tim thanks for their “invaluable help in making BabyBarista.” My name must be there because of the cheerleading I did as a fellow blawger for his Barrister Blog and my envious reporting of Tim’s coup landing the BabyBarista weblog at the TimesOnline. I had no hand in the novel’s content or structure.

P.S. If you’re interested in a witty first novel by another lawyer, with fully-developed characterization of the lawyer-protagonist, plus more actual lawyering, and an excellent explanation of the psychology and strategy that goes into making a personal injury negligence case and bringing it to trial, see “An Almost Life” by Kevin Mednick (The Permanent Press, December 2007; reviewed at f/k/a).


David Giacalone formerly blogged at EthicalEsq. and f/k/a.


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