A Conflict of Interest
By Adam MitznerGalley Books (2011)Reviewed by Loretta G. Cravens
“I like Batman. … Think of it as my way of identifying with another defender of the innocent,” powerful New York City defense lawyer Alex Miller says as he explains the Batman collectibles decorating his office to an old family friend. The friend — a new client — is about to pay Miller a $2 million fee.
It was with the same sentiment that I set down to review Adam Mitzner’s first published novel, A Conflict of Interest. I wanted to identify with my fellow defender of the innocent, both the author himself, and Alex Miller.
A partner at a prestigious law firm, Alex Miller is approached at his father’s funeral by longtime family friend Michael Ohlig, and soon signs on to defend him in a multimillion dollar securities fraud investigation and ultimately through trial. Assigned to assist him is rising star and partner-in-waiting Abby Sloan.
The plot seems destined a winner, but it never quite delivers. The characters are underdeveloped, giving the reader no real reason to connect with them. Both the protagonist and the antagonist, lawyer Miller and defendant Ohlig, respectively, read in a pretentious unlikable manner, though clearly the author intended the reader to identify with them. The possible exceptions are Alex’s wife, Elizabeth, and daughter Charlotte. They somehow become compelling subplot characters, who by the end of the novel salvage the storyline.
What Mitzner does well in this novel is develop the feel of a pretrial war room and the cold weightiness of the inside of a federal courtroom, and giving an accurate, although somewhat dramatized, depiction of the nature of a lawyer’s involvement in corporate investigations pretrial. In this way, Mitzner has excelled.
All too often, works of legal fiction hinge on the dramatic jailhouse meeting between lawyer and defendant and barrel forward toward a “Matlock” moment at trial. As defense lawyers, especially those handling corporate criminal investigations, we know that there is so much more to our work than the scene that plays out in the courtroom. We know that we are often most effective when we become involved very early in the process and that our best work is done long before we ever see the jury.
In A Conflict of Interest the plot would be compelling if the characters were more so. When I sit down to read a work of fiction, I need to become invested in at least one of the characters. I need to care enough about them to want to know what happens to them or be intrigued enough to continue reading to see what makes them who they are. Wondering what booze those characters will order (Martini? Scotch? Red? White?) at the next fancy dinner billed to a client cannot hold my attention.
Like the vast majority of legal thrillers, the author throws in some obligatory plot twists. Unfortunately, by the time they arrived well over halfway through the novel, I’d become disillusioned with the book. The litigators among us will appreciate the author’s description of the process, which might go unappreciated by the lay reader. However, as a criminal defense lawyer, my daily work is filled with more interesting stories and characters than the reader will meet here. I hope Mitzner’s next work of legal fiction will give more depth to the characters and readers a chance to invest in the people caught up in the plot.