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
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
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. …