Book Review: David Lat’s Supreme Ambitions

Picture Lat, lying naked except for a Harvard College ring, on a silky, billowing black background with what appears to be a sleeve showing the barest of black velvet stripes covering his groin, arms and legs akimbo, with one eyebrow slightly raised, eyes half shut as if meant for only you, lips slightly apart, glistening with a hint of tongue.  This is Supreme Ambitions.

For anyone who remembers the early days of Underneath Their Robes, when A3G obsessed over whether judicial hotties wore boxers or briefs, or the glory days of Above The Law, when it was just David Lat, having outed himself with Jeffrey Toobin as one of Chris Christie’s male Jersey federales, his first novel, Supreme Ambitions, will bring back the glow of what made Lat stand out above all others.  The snark, wrapped in obsession about the world of the elite; Top schools, top firms, top judges and most of all, the path to the top, and yet with that hint of humility that made him endearing.

Published by the ABA of all people, Supreme Ambitions* is pure Lat, the original Lat before he became a blogging impresario, handing off ATL real estate to any bobblehead who would write for short-lived adoration and more concerned with the number of pop-up ads than shameless self-promotion.  That Lat, the one whose obsession with a world that few ever see, still lives, and he’s back in this book.

Supreme Ambitions is a roman à clef about the ambitions of Yale law grad Audrey Coyne, a conservative, half-Filipino with high ambitions.  See anything yet? She meets a fat, wise-cracking, black woman in a polka-dot bikini by the pool, Harvetta Chambers, who clerks for the second-string California Supreme Court. Now?  At the clerks’ dinner, she sits at Judge Polanksi’s table, a brilliant jurist whose idiosyncrasies are, ahem, well-known and thinks she’s lovely. Got it? Do I have to draw a picture of a naked woman painted like a cow for you?

The story, per the Amazon description, is classic Lat:

Supreme Ambitions details the rise of Audrey Coyne, a recent Yale Law School graduate who dreams of clerking for the U.S. Supreme Court someday. Audrey moves to California to clerk for Judge Christina Wong Stinson, a highly regarded appeals-court judge who is Audrey’s ticket to a Supreme Court clerkship. While working for the powerful and driven Judge Stinson, Audrey discovers that high ambitions come with a high price. Toss in some headline-making cases, a little romance, and a pesky judicial gossip blog, and you have a legal novel with the inside scoop you’d expect from the founder of Above the Law, one of the nation’s most widely read and influential legal websites.

All the juiciness one would hope for in the details of how ambitious gunners scheme to climb to the top of the legal food chain are in here, enough so that all the deniers that federal judges have their clerks deciding the fate of the world will weep. Woven into the tale of sweet, self-effacing Audrey in nasty AmbitionLand are the nuances that elude most of us, as we never need to know how to dodge and weave our way to greatness.  It’s a mix of naiveté and sophistication far beyond the knowledge of mere mortal lawyers.  It’s Lat’s world, and he gives us a peek.

SPOILER ALERT: The book is a page turner.  While the dialogue is a bit turgid in the beginning, it loosens up as it goes along.  More importantly, you start to care about Audrey, even though you’re never quite sure who to root for.  Even her chambers nemesis, Amit (Joe Patrice, if he was able to write well?), who becomes the foil as the secret author of Beneath Their Robes,** which is used to extort him out of seeking his own Supreme Court clerkship, ends up not being hated scum. /SPOILER ALERT

No, it’s not the great American novel, and likely won’t interest anyone who doesn’t have an appreciation of what the elite insiders in law see when they look at their career path. But I absolutely loved this book.  It was funny, fascinating and taught me about a world that people from TTT (third tier toilets) would never know, or have reason to know.

I learned more about professional women’s fashions than I ever cared to know, though I wonder why it was more Manolo Blahnik than Louboutin, more Armani than Chanel. Does this matter? I guess, as Lat certainly has greater knowledge of such things than I ever will.  And if I happen to get tapped for a Supreme Court seat, I won’t mistakenly wear the pink suit for the announcement and the grey for the confirmation celebration.  See how informative it is?

But Supreme Ambitions was fun.  If there is a genre about the inside of world of big time law, then Lat owns it.  And being on the outside looking in, I relished in his tidbits on the cusp of its sleaziness.  To his great credit, Lat avoided the usually-obligatory sex scenes, limiting it to two kisses that would just suffice to meet the approval of the 26 gender categories of Ivy League liberal arts colleges.  Anything more would have just been gross.  This falls under the heading of judicial restraint, a sub rosa theme of the book which, like every other sacred cow, gets dirtied by ambition.

If you take any pleasure in the secret sauce that makes the judicial hotties hot, then you will adore Supreme Ambitions.  It’s a quick read, and hopefully Lat’s next novel won’t end with Pollyanna’s losing her virginity, but I certainly expect a next book from David and will read it with the same guilty abandon as his first. Great job, David.  And great to know that the old David Lat is still there, hiding somewhere beneath the impresario.

*  Lat sent me a free advance copy, after I poked him when I saw Judge Kopf’s effusive review of the book.

**  Lat gives a shout-out to the most important law blogs, shamelessly starting with his own (using the blawg de plume Beneath Their Robes with the caveat that it’s well-worked into the story), but moving on to such luminaries as Volokh Conspiracy, SCOTUSBlog, How Appealing, Concurring Opinions and PrawfsBlawg.  All the big ones are in there. All of them. Every single one. Not a single one left out. Nope, they’re all there, every blawg that matters. I trust I’ve been clear about this.

8 comments on “Book Review: David Lat’s Supreme Ambitions

  1. Catherine Mulcahey

    You have cheered up my morning. Thank you. Now back to police brutality, invasion of privacy, and efforts to make unpleasantness illegal.

    1. SHG Post author

      David’s book brought me back to the early days of the blawgosphere, when it was all about having fun, indulging in things that fascinated us and taking stupid risks because we could. And now back to the unpleasantness.

  2. Jim Tyre

    Picture Lat, lying naked except for a Harvard College ring, on a silky, billowing black background

    Oh, thank you Scott. That was just the image I needed to start my day. Now I must go wash my brain out with soap.

    1. SHG Post author

      Hey, I had to suffer the image of Elie’s butt stretching a bikini bottom through the whole book. Why should I suffer alone?

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