Thursday, February 18, 2010

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Nibble & Kuhn

Debbie Ray writer

A partnership in a prestigious, white shoe Boston law firm is, without question, what every young lawyer aspires to, right? Weston resident David Schmahmann questions that commonly held wisdom as he skillfully weaves an irony-tinged story that is part legal thriller, part love story, and part satirical comedy. Schmahmann’s second novel, Nibble & Kuhn (Academy Chicago, 2009), provides an allegorical romp through the hallowed halls of Boston’s law community with Derek Dover, a young litigation attorney, caught between a rock and a couple of hard places. Up for partnership, Derek has two problems: a no-win lawsuit dumped on him by a senior partner and a no-win relationship with an appealing but unavailable colleague. On top of that, his firm, Nibble & Kuhn, is changing its image, “re-branding” itself, and planning a move into flashy new quarters, all of which is unsettling to Derek.

David Schmahmann is uniquely positioned to write about the law, lawyers, and law firms. A partner in a Boston law firm for over twenty-five years, he realized from the time he was a young boy in Durbin, South Africa that he wanted to be two things: a writer and a lawyer. Although his love for writing obviously stayed the course, Schmahmann never considered choosing any profession other than law. His mother, a lecturer in political science who once ran for South Africa’s parliament, had a cadre of friends, many of whom were lawyers. From early childhood Schmahmann was mesmerized by this group of adults and thought they were the most interesting, articulate, and enlightened people he had ever been around. He wanted to be like them and couldn’t wait for the day he would become a lawyer. Fulfilling what he saw as his destiny, after graduating from Dartmouth College, he enrolled at Cornell Law School where he subsequently received a law degree.

Schmahmann, the award-winning author of Empire Settings, a poignant account of race, class, and illicit love in apartheid era South Africa, chooses a much less serious topic for his second novel. In writing this insider’s view of a big corporate law firm, he manages to make the greed and pretension that run rampant at the pompous Nibble & Kuhn seem wickedly funny. Let’s admit it—everybody loves an opportunity to laugh at those bombastic individuals who take themselves way too seriously, not to mention make our lives a living hell. Schmahmann helps us do this, but he does much more.

Nibble & Kuhn is set in Boston and includes references to a western suburb, Wellesley to be exact. Most of the action takes place in Boston except for the occasions when Derek gives Maria Parma, his romantic interest, a ride home from work. Approaching her Cliff Road residence in Wellesley, Maria invariably insists that he drop her off down the street. Her parents, apparently old world types, don’t know she is involved with Derek since she is informally engaged to a family friend in Spain. Although Maria privately professes her love for Derek, she digs in her heels when pushed to actually commit. It’s complicated.

Derek’s bleak personal life can only be eclipsed by an even bleaker professional situation. The magic moment is finally in sight for Derek. The diligent young attorney has paid his dues and is a mere six months away from what he hopes will be an offer for partnership in the venerable firm. With the exception of his complicated office romance with Maria (and maybe at least one more office tryst of the “What were you thinking?” variety), Derek has tried to play by the rules. Just when he thinks he is about to be rewarded for his efforts, he is saddled with an impossible, high-visibility environmental lawsuit. Although the case has already been bungled on every level, Derek has no choice other than to take it. With little help and even fewer resources, Derek arranges for Maria to assist him on the case, a move that escalates the tension in both their personal and professional lives. As the preparation for the case gets more and more difficult, Derek is racked with paranoia (with good reason) that he has been set up for failure by the powers that be within the firm.

Simultaneously, the firm is busy re-branding itself from a staid Boston institution to a slick, pretentious operation replete with secretaries who have secretaries and opulent, though unsubstantial new quarters. As a disgruntled partner and eventual ally shares with Derek, the whole place is “fiberglass dressed up to look like granite,” and art that is “garbage embellished to fake pedigree.” Misery loves company and there is plenty for all as Nibble & Kuhn’s push for a new image comes amidst a sinking economy; suddenly the secretaries are gone and, heaven forbid, the most senior of the partners are seen in the firm’s library trying to cut costs and staff by doing research themselves—via reference books! Are they even computer literate? We’re not sure. What we are pretty sure of is that Nibble and Kuhn needs money, lots of it, and they need Derek to somehow win this un-winnable case or to at least end it as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Depressed about work, romance, and human nature, Derek perseveres to an unexpected outcome in both law and love. Readers will laugh until they hurt and gasp in disbelief at the courtroom scenes that unfold as Derek takes this un-winnable case to trial. Although it may help to have a legal background to understand some of the humor, even novices will appreciate Schmahmann’s storytelling skills in laying out the outlandish and unexpected lead up to the novel’s ending.

David Schmahmann takes us into the world of big law in a cumbersome Boston firm, gives us a close look under the hood, and offers more than a few chuckles. He has written a fast paced, colorful narrative that ultimately says everything about what he values in his own life. The father of two young daughters, he now prioritizes his time to spend several hours each day with his family. Far from the agenda of his conflict-filled days as a corporate law partner, Schmahmann says there are three things that take precedence over everything else now: his wife and children, his family, and his friends. From the looks of the adoring crowd of well-wishers at Schmahmann’s recent reading at Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center, Derek Dover would do well to imitate him. Nibble & Kuhn is an enjoyable read that works to simultaneously entertain us while hitting us smack in the face with themes of liberation and meaning in our own lives—subjects for which we can all give pause.

David Schmahmann continues to practice law but decidedly not in a Nibble & Kuhn manner. Empire Settings, his first novel, won the John Gardner Book Award. His third novel, Ivory from Paradise, described as a “companion” rather than a “sequel” to Empire Settings, will be in bookstores in fall 2010.

For more information, visit David’s Web site at

© 2010 Elm Bank Media