Book Depicts Legal Passion

Article excerpt

MEET Jan Schlichtmann, personal-injury lawyer on the brink of self-destruction. It is July 1986, and Schlichtmann's black Porsche 928 has just been repossessed.

His luxury condo, with a view of Boston's Charles River, is about to be foreclosed, his office furniture removed for nonpayment of rental fees. Nor has he paid the salaries of his loyal staff in months, nor the cleaning bills for his hand-tailored Dimitri suits and silk Hermes ties, now held hostage by the dry cleaner.

Today, he doesn't even have funds for a cab to the Boston courthouse, so he walks in his high-gloss Bally shoes to await a jury's verdict.

Only in a dream would you expect to meet a lawyer like this. One who takes your case on contingency, then spends nine years working so obsessively to win it that he gives up his other cases, his savings, his sex life, his personal possessions and his good credit rating - and then taps the resources of friends - all in hopes that justice will eventually prevail.

And did it?

"Justice is at the bottom of a bottomless pit," a learned lawyer told him during the trial.

And justice was not to be the relevant issue in this case anyway. Certainly not for writer Jonathan Harr, who was 36 and looking for a subject on which to base his first book when a friend introduced him to Schlichtmann, who had already spent four years and $1 million of mostly borrowed money preparing the case for trial.

Schlichtmann's clients were families in Woburn, Mass., whose children were dead or dying of leukemia. His suit alleged that their illness was caused by drinking water contaminated by toxic waste dumped by subsidiaries of Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace.

Schlichtmann had consulted with some of the world's leading experts on toxic waste, ground water seepage and leukemia; he had underwritten hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of research and tests that his expert consultants had required. All of this assured him that there was enough hard, scientific evidence to sway a jury in his favor.

Harr knew the minute he met Schlichtmann that this was a character worth writing about - a flashy zealot, naive and sincere, willing to risk his legal and personal life for clients whose cause he believed in.

Harr asked for "total access" to the case. That meant he'd be Schlichtmann's shadow wherever the lawyer went: to office meetings, to client meetings, to settlement meetings, to court, to the men's room, to the bank, even on Schlichtmann's dates with women he no longer had time or energy to take to bed. …