- Unbillable Hours: A True Story
- Kaplan Publishing, 241 pp.
In 2002, his first year out of law school, Ian Graham found himself working on the defense team of what he describes as “the case of a lifetime.” It was an appeal on behalf of Mario Rocha, a Los Angeleno of Mexican descent, who in 1996, at the age of sixteen, had been convicted of the murder of another Latino youth, the result of a shooting that had occurred at a backyard house party. Rocha was given two consecutive life sentences, although he was in fact innocent. The two shooters were gang members who had crashed the party.
Rocha’s defense was, to say the least, a surprising case for Graham, who was twenty-eight at the time. He had just begun working for the Los Angeles office of Latham & Watkins, an international firm that specializes in corporate law. Rocha’s case arrived at the firm through the back-door efforts of Roman Catholic nun Janet Harris, a Sister of the Presentation who has devoted much of her energies to helping disadvantaged youth. One of the elder partners of the firm took on the case pro bono, although not without reservations, as overturning a criminal conviction is nearly impossible.
In his book Unbillable Hours: A True Story, Graham admits that he joined Latham & Watkins not out of any great passion or conviction. It seemed like a fairly easy option for someone who had grown up in a privileged environment among attorneys (although his father suggested that he had spent all those years toiling at a corporate practice so his children wouldn’t have to). Graham writes that he did well enough in law school to be actively solicited by a number of top firms that were rapidly expanding in the go-go days of the dot com boom before 9/11. While Graham was in his second year of law school, representatives of Latham & Watkins wined and dined him, and gave him a cushy summer internship to convince him to join the club. He writes that it was rumored that some of the most memorable exploits of the characters in the television series L.A. Law were based on real-life characters from the firm.
The reality of the first few months of Graham’s law career was not nearly so glamorous or sexy. He may have been earning a six-figure salary, but he found himself in windowless conference rooms miles from home, poring over documents so deadly boring that he needed to drink entire pots of coffee to merely stay awake. When the opportunity came along to help the partner with Rocha’s defense, Graham jumped at the chance, even though the hours spent working on a pro bono case were “unbillable,” and would do absolutely nothing to advance his career at Latham & Watkins. The story of his brief career at the firm is interspersed with that of his role in Rocha’s defense in Unbillable Hours.
To gain Rocha a new trial (and ultimately a reversal of his sentence), it was necessary to prove that his previous lawyer had been not only negligently ineffective but that his carelessness had been crucial to the loss of the case. For those who know little of criminal law – like the callow Graham at the time – Rocha’s example would have seemed like a slam dunk. The list of Rocha’s lawyer’s mistakes was endless. He hadn’t bothered to point out to the jury that the only eyewitness who claimed to have seen Rocha firing a gun was not wearing his eyeglasses at the time of the shooting, or that he claimed to have seen the shooter firing with his left hand (although Rocha was right-handed). Only three witnesses out of more than fifty had been interviewed, and the attorney prepared for all of eight hours before trial began.
As Graham would discover, justice is not only blind for a Latino defendant with little funding like Rocha; it is also deaf, and dumb in every sense of the word. It would take great efforts on behalf of Graham, other lawyers at Latham & Watkins, and Sister Janet Harris before Rocha ultimately found justice.
While working on Rocha’s case Graham discovered his distaste for corporate law. Soon after he helped overturn Rocha’s conviction, he quit his job at the firm and began to work on his book. There are a couple of good stories to be told in Unbillable Hours, but I’m not sure that Graham is quite up to the task. For the uninformed, he is proficient at describing how justice is unlikely to prevail for a client like Rocha, and he is also good – perhaps too good – at illustrating the tedium of corporate work.
Yet the various characters – all promising material for a book – are never more than sketchily drawn. The young prisoner with a will to fight his way to justice; the feisty nun who won’t take no for an answer; the elder white-shoe partner who is compared to Atticus Finch, barely come to life on the page and remain characters in search of an author.
At the end of the book, I wasn’t quite sure why Graham chose to tell Rocha’s story at all, since it was already related in a documentary called Mario’s Story and Rocha himself is working on a manuscript about his experience called Young Lifer. Graham never says it in so many words, but between the lines some readers may have the unpleasant sensation that the author thought that the young Latino’s story might be his ticket out of corporate law (and an attempt at recompense for some of those unbillable hours).
This speculation is underscored by the jacket copy of the book, for which Graham is, of course, not responsible. On the back cover Unbillable Hours is described as a memoir “that combines the suspense of John Grisham’s legal thrillers with the raw intensity of Scott Turow’s One L.” The two-hundred-and-forty page book, more than anything, reads like an extended treatment for a possible film. The author still lives in L.A. and has been involved in documentary production.
In a recent interview with a web site called Above the Law, Graham says that he is currently teaching law and consulting on cases where there is “an obvious injustice.” There are way too many such cases. His assistance on them is sorely needed.
David Lida is the author of several books, including First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, Capital of the 21st Century. As a mitigation specialist, he conducts investigations for defense attorneys on death-penalty cases. His website can be found at www.davidlida.com.