"The client's been working on a deal for weeks. They signed the papers last night." Dan beamed. No trial, no possibility of defeat. The perfect win record, still intact.
"What about . . . ?" and Lina circled her hand in the air to indicate the brief she had just completed, the twelve sets of exhibit files copied and bound, the witnesses flown in from L.A. and London, the thirty-odd people working feverishly upstairs, their eyes red, their vacations canceled, their carpals tunneled. What about all of that?
"Yeah, I'll go up soon to share the good news. Got some stuff to finish off down here first." Dan examined a hangnail. "You know, it's always a good idea to wait until the ink is dry before you pull the plug."
"But our position was so strong." Lina shifted in place, tucked a restless lick of dark hair behind one ear. "So how much was the settlement?"
"Two-fifty." Dan lowered his gaze to the floor as he said this.
"Two-fifty! Jesus, Dan, that won't even cover the legal fees. We were right. We would have won."
Dan paused, tilted his head, and in the brief silence Lena read his disapproval, not of the settlement figure but of her outburst, her indignation. Rash. Unprofessional. She gave a chastised little nod.
"Probably we would have won," Dan said. "But you know, litigation is messy. It takes a long time. The client just didn't have the stomach for it. They're happy, Lina. They're satisfied." He exhaled long and low. "Look, this is what happens. I know, it's tough. You get caught up in a case, you want to go in there and win. But remember, the client calls the shots. We do their bidding. This isn't about us, it isn't about emotion or any sort of absolute . . . justice, or whatever you want to call it. At the end of the day it's about the client's best interest. What does the client want? What's best for their bottom line?"
As Dan spoke, Lina's gaze shifted to the darkened glass of his monstrous windows. Her own image reflected back: her blouse flared white, her hair a dark helmet, her face cast in shadow, the features indistinct, her body truncated and shorter (surely) than she actually was. And something in the position of her head, or the way the image seemed poised, hovering, disconnected from any solid ground, reminded Lina of the photo of her mother that sat beside her bed at home: Grace Janney Sparrow, dead when Lina was four, standing with bare arms and a forced smile on the steps of the house where Lina and her father still lived. In that photo, Lina's mother was square-shouldered, cock-kneed, paused, waitingLina had always wondered, what was she waiting for?in just the way Lina was standing now.
Lina straightened, shifted in place, and her mother's image vanished. She shrugged her shoulders, settled her face to impassivethe look she so often admired on Dan, of calm reason, of dignified remove.
"Of course, the client's best interest. I'm glad they're happy. A settlement. That's great."
Dan nodded with gravity, with finality. Lesson imparted, lesson learned.
"And Lina," Dan said. "Glad you stopped by. There's something I want to talk to you about. A new case, something I think you'll like."
Instantly, the fraud trial and its beleaguered brief receded from Lina's mind. She needed a new case. There were so many hours in a day, all of them billable to a client, some client, any client. Lina allocated her time in six-minute intervals via a computerized clock that ticked away in the lower left-hand corner of her computer screen, silently reeling off the workday minutes in pie wedges of bright yellow. Another six minutes gone, and another wedge of that small clock flashed. At Clifton, time was an end in itself, the accomplishment of a task not nearly as important as the accurate recording of the minutes consumed by its execution. Lina felt sometimes, with an increasing frequency, that the clock existed inside her, all day, every day, the ticking away of minutes embedded in her brain, pulsing through her bloodstream. The idea of falling behind in her billables filled her with an amorphous dread.
Excerpted from The House Girl by Tara Conklin. Copyright © 2013 by Tara Conklin. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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