A Civil Action

by Jonathan Harr

Start Free Trial

The Lawyer

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Schlichtmann walks into a bar and catches the eye of a woman named Teresa. Schlichtmann is beaming with pride, because he has just settled the Copley Plaza Hotel fire case for $2.5 million. Teresa sees him as “an ambulance chaser” and says he’s not a good fit for her, because her family is comprised of doctors. They chat about going to the Cape, and Schlichtmann reveals he has just purchased a new Porsche.

They spend most of that weekend together, and the narrator reveals that the couple spend the next two years together. Schlichtmann purchased countless luxurious gifts for Teresa as well as gifts with which to thank and congratulate his employees. Teresa feels he is egotistical yet generous and kind.

As a young man, Schlichtmann isn’t sure he wants to be a lawyer. But his father, seeing his gift of persuasion, pushes Schlichtmann to pursue a career in law. After obtaining a philosophy degree, he finds his place as the director of the ACLU’s Rhode Island branch. His first case involves nuns and mothers who are seeking welfare. The group wants to protest the governor’s cuts to welfare aid in the state. After being ejected and threatened with charges, Schlichtmann decides he will look at the case from a legal standpoint. Realizing the justice system is supposed to protect women like his clients, he has an epiphany where he recognizes he can do good things in this world as a lawyer. He starts law school at Cornell, ends his failing marriage, and wins the case for his female clients.

Schlichtmann gets an offer from one of his professors to work for him at the House Select Committee on Assassinations. He lasts nine months and quits, heading to New Hampshire with the dream of starting his own practice. Once he gets there, he realizes New Hampshire has enough lawyers. He ends up renting an apartment in downtown Newburyport instead and opens an office in his home. He hires a woman named Kathy Boyer as his secretary and builds his own in-home law library.

Schlichtmann is ready to forgo “country law,” but when a man named Lowell Eaton walks into his office, things change. Lowell lost his son years ago. His son fell into a gravel pit next-door to their home and drowned. The construction company covered up the evidence. After his current lawyer tells him to get over the death of his son, Lowell heads to Schlichtmann for help. Schlichtmann feels this case might be too difficult for him but decides to take it anyway. He researches, examines aerial pictures of the site, hires a doctor and civil engineer to testify, and prepares for his first big court case. In doing the work, he realizes this is what he is meant to do.

When Schlichtmann finally gets a court date, Liberty Mutual calls him to settle, but Schlichtmann has too much money riding on this case. The claims manager laughs at his misfortune and eagerly wants to see him lose in court.

During the trial, the judge calls both lawyers to the bench and tries to settle the case for seventy-five thousand dollars. Everyone agrees that this amount is way more than the case is worth and that Schlichtmann should take the settlement, but Schlichtmann rejects the offer. Whether by ignorance or sheer luck, Schlichtman wins the case with a $250,000 verdict, plus interest.

Schlichtmann, affirmed in his vocation as a lawyer, writes to three major Boston firms looking for jobs. While he searches, he receives a major case from a man who lost his wife in a plane crash....

(This entire section contains 1303 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

She and a few others were on a private flight to Atlantic City. The man feels the pilot, a local businessman, was reckless, causing the plane to crash. At the same time, Reed from Reed & Mulligan, the law firm representing the Woburn families, asks Schlichtmann to meet for lunch. Reed is representing the other two plane-crash victims’ families and wants to take this third client from Schlichtman. He tries to pay Schlichtmann off with a referral fee, but Schlichtmann refuses. The two decide Schlichtmann can help Reed work the case in Boston.

Schlichtmann, now known as “the kid,” is at the offices of Reed & Mulligan all hours of the day and night. After months of effort, he pieces together a story of a new pilot who was not supposed to be operating a plane at that time of day. In addition, a bar tab indicates that he was under the influence. Reed and Schlichtmann bring the case to court knowing it will probably settle for the pilot’s insurance policy of one million dollars. Because of Schlichtmann’s tenacity and efficiency, Reed gives him more work.

At this point, four months have passed since Mulligan began working with the Woburn families, and it has been three years since he took the malpractice case involving Robbie’s hip. Mulligan doesn’t have the time for the Woburn case, so he delegates it to Schlichtmann. As Schlichtmann reads the files, he realizes there are too many unanswered questions. Schlichtmann drives to Anne’s house to meet with the families. The meeting with the families touches Schlichtmann’s heart, but he feels there is little he can do to help.

As time goes on, Schlichtmann starts looking through other untouched files at the firm with the help of colleague Kevin Conway, who occupies a cubicle space near Mulligan’s office. Together, they start making millions for their clients. As a team, they are well balanced. Conway doesn’t look as put-together as Schlichtmann, but he is sensible and keeps Schlichtmann grounded. As compassionate as Conway is, he knows the Woburn case is “a black hole.”

At the heart of the seemingly abandoned case is Anne Anderson, who refuses to let the case go. She knows wholeheartedly that the contaminated wells killed her son and the sons of her neighbors, but Schlichtmann isn’t convinced that there is enough evidence to prove it. Because the statute of limitations is running out, Schlichtmann decides he cannot take the case and calls the families together to break the news. Before he can say goodbye, Reverend Young asks Schlichtmann if money could help, telling him he just spoke to a group in Washington, D. C., called Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. In fact, Schlichtmann gave money to that same group to get them started.

The group sends Anthony Roisman to Woburn. Roisman spends days working with Schlichtmann, and they decide that Roisman will take the lead on the Woburn case, with Schlichtmann acting as local counsel. After two years of little to no movement, Roisman’s assistants find significant information from the EPA’s original report. The Woburn site is ranked 39th out of the nation’s 418 most contaminated sites. After hiring a Princeton professor to read the EPA’s technical report, the professor believes the chemicals came from W. R. Grace, a multinational chemical company. The other source is from the nearby John J. Riley Tannery, which is owned by a large conglomerate under the name Beatrice Foods.

Schlichtmann drives to Woburn and checks out the sites in question. He sees several barrels of what he assumes are chemicals at the Whitney Barrel Company and starts framing arguments in his mind. Roisman begins to draw up the formal complaint against Grace and Beatrice Foods, claiming the companies poisoned the drinking water with a chemical called trichloroethylene (TCE). They finish the complaint eight days before the statute of limitations expires.

Once the case is filed, news crews show up to interview Schlichtmann. Conway is glad he’s not in the spotlight but wants to remind his partner that he is no longer the lead on this case. He watches Schlichtmann’s ego grow from the attention.


Woburn: Summer 1966


Rule 11