Excerpt from Practice Makes Perfect

Payton peered up from her computer as Irma walked into her office, waving in the air the timesheets Payton had given her earlier that morning.

“I get depressed just logging in these hours,” her secretary continued in an exasperated tone. “Seriously, I need to be assigned to a different associate. Someone whose weekly timesheets aren’t as long as Anna Karenina.”

Payton raised an eyebrow knowingly as she took the stack of timesheets from her secretary. “Let me guess— another recommendation from Oprah?”

Irma gave Payton a look that said she was treading on seriously dangerous ground.

“That sounds like mocking,” Irma said.

“No, never,” Payton assured her, trying not to grin. “I’m sure it’s a wonderful book.”

At least four times a year Irma made the pilgrimage out to the West Loop to sit in the audience at Harpo Studios and be in the presence of Her Holiness the Winfrey. She took all recommendations from the TV maven— lifestyle, literary, and otherwise— as gospel. Any comments in the negative by Payton or anyone else were strictly taboo.

Irma took a seat in front of the desk as she waited for Payton to sign off on the completed timesheets. “You’d like it. It’s about a woman who’s progressive for her time.”

“Sounds promising,” Payton said distractedly as she skimmed the printout of the hours her secretary had entered.

“Then she falls for the wrong man,” Irma continued.

“That’s a bit cliché, isn’t it? They call this Tolstoy guy a writer?” Payton quickly scrawled her signature across the bottom of the last timesheet and handed them back to Irma.

“This ‘Tolstoy guy’ knows about relationships. Perhaps you could learn a thing or two from him.”

Payton pretended not hear the comment. After years of working with Irma, the two of them had developed a comfortable, familiar relationship and she had learned that the best way to handle her secretary’s not-so-subtle remarks regarding her personal life was simply to ignore them.

“You’ve seen the evidence of my lack of free time,” Payton said, gesturing to her timesheets. “Until I’m through with this trial, I’m afraid Tolstoy will have to wait.” She pointed. “But if Oprah happens to know of a book about responding to subpoenas for corporate documents, that I would be interested in.”

Seeing Irma’s look of warning, Payton held up her hands innocently. “I’m just saying.”

“I tell you what,” Irma said. “I’ll hold onto the book for you. Because after this month, I suspect you’ll be able to give yourself a bit of a break.” She winked.

Payton turned back to her computer. Despite Irma’s repeated attempts to engage her on this subject, she didn’t like to talk openly about it. After all, she didn’t want to jinx things. So she waved aside the remark, feigning nonchalance.

“Is something happening this month? I’m not aware of it.”

Irma snorted. “Please. You’ve only had this month highlighted in your electronic calendar for eight years.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. And stop snooping around in my calendar.”

Irma rose to leave. “Alright, alright, I know how you are about discussing this stuff.” She headed toward the door, then paused and turned back. “I almost forgot— Mr. Gould’s secretary called. He wondered if you’re free to meet in his office at 1:30.”

Payton quickly checked. “Works for me. Tell her that I’ll come by his office then.” She began entering the appointment in her daily planner when she heard her secretary call to her from the doorway.

“Um, Payton— one last thing?”

Payton looked up distractedly from her computer. “Yes?”

Irma smiled reassuringly. “You’re gonna make it, you know. You’ve earned it. So stop being so paranoid.”

Despite herself, Payton grinned. “Thanks, Irma.”

Once her secretary was gone, Payton’s thoughts lingered for a moment. She glanced over at the calendar on her desk.

Four weeks left. The firm’s partnership decisions would be announced at the end of the month. Truth be told, she was feeling fairly hopeful about her chances of making it. She had worked hard for this— long hours, never turning down work— and now she was in the homestretch. The finish line was finally in sight.

Payton felt her heartbeat begin to race as she gave into the excitement for one teeny tiny moment. Then, not wanting to get too carried away just yet, she calmed herself and, as always, got busy with work.

A few minutes before 1:30, Payton gathered her notes and her summary trial file folder for her meeting with Ben. She wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to meet about, but she guessed it had something to do with the trial she was about to start next week. As the head of the firm’s litigation department, Ben stayed on top of all cases going to trial, even those he wasn’t directly involved in.

As was typical, Payton felt slightly on edge as she prepared for the meeting with her boss. She never knew what to expect with him. Despite the fact that Ben had never given her any indication that he was disappointed in her work— to the contrary, he consistently gave her the highest marks in her annual reviews— she felt that, at times, there was some sort of awkward undercurrent to their interactions. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, she just got a weird vibe now and then. He ran hot and cold with her; sometimes he was fine, other times he seemed a bit… stiff. Stilted. At first she had assumed this was simply part of his personality, but she had seen him joking easily with other associates. Interestingly, all male associates.

Payton had begun to suspect that Ben— while never blatantly unprofessional— had a more difficult time getting along with women. It certainly wasn’t an unlikely conclusion to draw. Law firms could be old-fashioned at times and unfortunately, female attorneys still had a bit of an “old boy network” to contend with.

Nevertheless, because Ben was the head of her group— and thus a key player in the decision whether to make her a partner—Payton resolved to keep trying to establish a more congenial rapport between them. After all, she liked to think she was a relatively easy-going person. With one exception (and who really counted him, anyway?) she prided herself on getting along with pretty much everyone she worked with.

Payton grabbed a pen and a legal pad, stuffed them in the file folder she carried, and headed out her office door. Irma’s desk was right outside her office, and she turned to let her secretary know she was leaving. In doing so, she nearly ran right into someone coming down the hallway from the other direction.

“Oh, sorry!” Payton exclaimed, scooting aside to avoid a collision. She looked up apologetically and—

—saw J.D.

Her expression changed to one of annoyance. She sighed. She had been having such a nice day until now.

Then Payton realized: oops— they had an audience. With a glance in Irma’s direction, she quickly adopted her most charmingly fake smile.

“Well, hello, J.D. How have you been?”

J.D. also cast an eye in the direction of the secretaries working nearby. As well practiced in this ruse as Payton, he matched her amiable expression with one of his own.

“My, how nice of you to ask, Payton,” he gushed ever so warmly as he gazed down at her. “I’m well, thank you. And yourself?”

As always, Payton found herself annoyed by how damn tall J.D. was. She hated being in a position of— literally— having to look up to him. She had no doubt that J.D., on the other hand, quite enjoyed this.

“Fine, thank you,” Payton told him. “I’m heading to Ben’s office.” She managed to maintain her pleasant grin. Meryl Streep may have her Oscars, but she could learn a thing or two from Payton. Best Pretense of Liking One’s Assholic Co-worker.

J.D.’s eyes narrowed slightly at Payton’s reply, but he too kept up the charade. “What a nice surprise— I’m headed to Ben’s office myself,” he said as if this was the best thing he’d heard all morning. Then he gestured gallantly to Payton— after you.

With an agreeable nod, she turned and headed down the back hallway to Ben’s corner office. J.D. strode easily alongside her; Payton had to take two steps for every one of his to keep up. Not that she let him see that.

After walking together in silence for a few moments, J.D. glanced around for witnesses. Seeing they were safely out of earshot, he folded his arms across his chest with what Payton had come to think of as the trademark J.D. Air Of Superiority.

“So I saw your name in the Chicago Lawyer,” he led in.

Payton smiled, knowing he surely had a thing or two to say about that. She was pleased he’d seen the article the magazine had run in this month’s edition. She had been tempted to send him a copy in yesterday’s inter-office mail, but thought it would be better if he discovered it on his own.

“40 To Watch Under 40,” she said, referencing the article’s title and proud of her inclusion in its distinction.

“40 Women To Watch Under 40,” J.D. emphasized. “Tell me, Payton— is there a reason your gender finds it necessary to be so separatist? Afraid of a little competition from the opposite sex, perhaps?”

Payton tried not to laugh as she tossed her hair back over her shoulders. Hardly. “If my gender hesitates to compete with yours, J.D., it’s only because we’re afraid to lower ourselves to your level,” she replied sweetly.

They arrived at the doorway to Ben’s office. J.D. leaned against the door casually and folded his arms across his chest. After eight years, Payton recognized this gesture well— it meant he was about to begin another one of his condescending little lectures. She gave it 95% odds that he’d begin with one of his pompously rhetorical questions that he had absolutely no intention of letting her answer.

“Let me ask you this…” he began.

Bingo.

“…how do you think it would go over if the magazine ran an article called “40 Men To Watch Under 40?” He wagged a finger in her face, answering for her. “You and your little feminista friends would call that discrimination. But then isn’t that, per se, discrimination? Shouldn’t we men be entitled to our lists too?”

J.D. held the door open for her and gestured for her to enter. As she passed by him, Payton noted that Ben wasn’t in his office yet, so she took a seat in front of his desk. As J.D. sat in the chair next to her, she turned to him, coolly unperturbed.

“I find it very interesting when a man, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, sitting next to me in an Armani suit, has the nerve to claim that he is somehow the victim of discrimination.”

J.D. opened his mouth to jump in, but Payton cut him off with a finger. Index, not middle. She was a lady after all.

“Notwithstanding that fact,” she continued, “I submit that you men do have your so-called ‘lists.’ Several at this firm, in fact. They’re called the Executive Committee, the Management Committee, the Compensation Committee, the firm’s golfing club, the intramural basketball team—“

“You want to be on the basketball team?” J.D. interrupted, his blue eyes crinkling in amusement at this.

“It’s illustrative,” Payton said, sitting back in her chair defensively.

“What’s illustrative?”

Payton sat upright at the sound of the voice. She glanced over as Ben Gould, head litigation partner, strode confidently into his office and took a seat at his desk. He fixed Payton with a curious gaze of his dark, probing eyes. She shifted in her chair, trying not to feel as though she was under interrogation.

J.D. answered Ben before Payton had a chance. “Oh, it’s nothing,” he said with a dismissive wave. “Payton and I were just discussing the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Ledder v. Arkansas, and how the opinion is illustrative of the Court’s continuing reluctance to embroil itself in state’s rights.”

Payton glanced at J.D. out of the corner of her eye. Smart-ass.

Although admittedly, that wasn’t too shabby a bit of quick thinking.

The jerk.

Ben laughed at them as he quickly glanced at the messages his secretary had left on his desk. “You two— you never stop.”

Payton fought the urge to snicker. He really had no idea.

J.D. seized on Ben’s momentary distraction to lean forward in his chair. He held the lapel of his suit out to Payton and whispered. “And by the way, it’s not Armani. It’s Zegna.” He winked at her.

Payton glared, tempted to tell him exactly where he could stick that Zegna suit.

“Sorry to call you both down here on such short notice,” Ben said. “But as you both may be aware, Gibson’s Drug Store chain has just been hit with a class action gender discrimination lawsuit.”

Payton had indeed heard about the lawsuit— yesterday’s filing of the complaint in a federal court in Florida had made all the national papers and had even been discussed on MSNBC and CNN.

“The complaint was filed yesterday, assigned to Judge Meyers of the Southern District of Florida,” she said, eager to let Ben know she was on top of things.

“The claims were filed under Title VII— 1.8 million female employees of the company allege they were discriminated against in hiring, pay and promotion,” J.D. added with a sideways glance in Payton’s direction. He too had done his homework.

Ben smiled at their eagerness. He leaned back, twirling his pen casually. “It’s the largest discrimination class action ever filed. That means big bucks to the law firm that defends Gibson’s.”

Payton saw the glint in Ben’s eye. “And who might that be?”

Ben laced his fingers together, drumming them against the back of his hands like a villain in a James Bond movie.

“Funny you should ask, Payton… The CEO of Gibson’s, Jasper Conroy, hasn’t decided yet which law firm will defend his company. He has, however, chosen three of the top firms in the country to meet with.”

J.D. grinned. “Let me take a wild stab in the dark here: our firm is one of those three.”

Ben nodded, proud as always that his group of litigators was continually ranked as being among the best in the world. “Nice guess. I got the call earlier this morning from Jasper himself.”

He pointed at J.D. and Payton. “And here’s where you two come in: Jasper was very clear about the type of trial team he’s looking for. He wants a fresher image to represent the face of his company, not a bunch of stodgy old men in suits, like me.” Ben chuckled, fully aware that at 49 years old he was actually quite young to be the head of litigation at such a prestigious firm. “Personally,” he continued, “I think Jasper is just trying to avoid paying partner rates.”

Like the good associates they were, Payton and J.D. laughed at the joke.

“Anyhoo…” Ben went on, “I told Jasper that this firm just so happens to have the perfect litigators for him. Two very experienced, very savvy senior associates. You two.”

Through her surprise, it took Payton a moment to process what Ben was saying. A large pit was growing in her stomach, because this conversation was headed in a very bad direction.

If someone made her swear an oath under cross-examination—better yet, if Jack Bauer himself subjected her to the full array of interrogation tactics at CTU’s disposal— Payton couldn’t have said exactly how her war with J.D. had started. Frankly, it had been going on for so long that it simply seemed to be the way things always were.

Without ever saying a word, however, she and J.D. had implicitly agreed to keep their mutual dislike to themselves. Both wanting more than anything to be successful at work, they understood that law firms were like kindergarten: it wasn’t good to get a “needs improvement” in “plays well with others.”

Luckily, it had been relatively easy to maintain their charade. Even though they were in the same group, it had been years since they had worked together on a case. There were a few reasons for this: first, as a general rule, cases in the litigation group were staffed with one partner, one senior associate and one or two junior associates. As members of the same class, there was little reason for both Payton and J.D. to work on the same matter.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the two of them had developed specialties in very different areas of the law. J.D. was a class action lawyer. He handled large multi-plaintiff, multi-district cases. Payton, on the other hand, specialized in employment law, particularly single-plaintiff race and gender discrimination lawsuits. Her cases were typically smaller in terms of damages at stake but higher profile in terms of the publicity they garnered.

Thus far— whether by fluke chance or luck— there had been very little overlap in the niche practice areas she and J.D. had carved out for themselves.

That is, until now, apparently.

Payton remained silent as Ben continued his pitch, trying to refrain from displaying the growing apprehension she felt. She snuck a quick peak at J.D. and saw him shift edgily in his chair. From what she could tell, he appeared just as displeased as she by this development.

“Combined, your skills are perfect for this case,” Ben was saying. “Jasper sounded very excited to meet you both.”

“This is… wonderful news, Ben,” Payton said, trying not to choke on her words.

“Yes… wonderful.” J.D. looked as though he had just swallowed a bug. “What is it you need us to do?”

“Jasper and Gibson’s general counsel, and a few of their in-house attorneys, will all be coming to Chicago on Thursday,” Ben said. “I want you two to work together and I want you to bring them in,” he emphasized, tapping his finger on his desk. “Think you’re up to it?”

Payton and J.D. eyed each other carefully, both thinking the same thing. Could they really do this?

Knowing what was at stake, in mutual understanding of how the game was played, they turned to Ben.

“Absolutely,” they said in unison.

Ben smiled at them, the future of his firm. He leaned back in his chair, getting sentimental. Undoubtedly at the thought of the big bucks they would bring in.

“Ah… eight years,” he said affectionately. “For eight years I have watched you two grow up at this firm, into the great lawyers you are. I’m excited by this chance to see you work together— you’ll make quite a team. And it’s perfect timing too, because soon you’ll both be p—“

With that, he abruptly stopped speaking.

J.D. and Payton sat on the edge of their seats, nearly falling off their chairs as they hung on Ben’s last sentence.

Apparently realizing he had said too much, Ben waved this off with a coy grin. “Well, one thing at a time. Right now, you guys have a pitch to prepare for.”

Seeing that Ben was finished discussing business, Payton stood up to leave. But instead of following her, J.D. remained seated. Payton paused awkwardly.

“Is there something else we need to talk about, Ben?” she asked.

Ben shook his head. “No, that’ll be all, Payton. I have something else I want to discuss with J.D., something that doesn’t concern you.” He gave her a curt nod of dismissal. There it was— he’d been friendly enough just moments ago, but now he was back to being all-business.

With a nod of her own, Payton left Ben’s office. As she turned into the hallway, she overheard him talking to J.D.

“So, Jameson,” she heard Ben say jovially, “the rumor is that you were playing up at Butler this weekend. What are you shooting these days, anyway?”

As Payton walked back to her office, she tried not to let it bother her, the fact that J.D. always had an easier time connecting with their boss on a personal level. To date, her attempts to establish a similar relationship with Ben had been largely unsuccessful. Movies? He didn’t watch ‘em. Television? He had once asked her if Seinfeld was “that chubby paralegal always hanging around the vending machines.” When Payton had laughed at this, thinking he was joking, she’d been greeted with a blank stare and had immediately fallen silent. From that point on, she had vowed that until she could wax poetic on whether trading So-and-So for What’s-His-Face was a smart move by Team Who-The-Hell-Cares, it was probably best to keep the non-legal chitchat with Ben to a minimum.

Team Jameson scores another point, Payton thought as she entered her office. He had an automatic advantage over her, the little penis-wielder. She could just picture him and Ben right now, all buddy-buddy in Ben’s office and chuckling their hearty man-laughs while trading tips on the best garage to have one’s Porsche/Mercedes/Rolls Royce/Some Other Fancy Car serviced at.

Not that it was a competition between them. Not at all.

That J.D. had, like Payton, seemingly devoted the last eight years of his life to the firm (perhaps the only thing they had in common) was wholly irrelevant in her mind to the question of whether she personally deserved to make partner. While it might have been something she had worried about back when she first started, her concern over being compared to J.D. had subsided as the years passed.

“There are no quotas or maximums,” Ben had repeatedly assured her in her annual reviews. “Each associate is judged on his or her own merit.” And from what Payton had observed in the classes before her, this statement appeared to be true: each year the associates who were ranked at the top of their class all made partner regardless of the total number of associates being considered that year.

So from where Payton stood, her chances of making it were pretty good, especially since she and J.D. were the only two litigators left in their class. According to her friend Laney, who also worked at the firm but was in the class below them, this was not coincidence: the gossip among the younger associates was that Payton and J.D. had scared off the other members of their class who hadn’t been nearly as interested in keeping pace and working the same ridiculous hours as them.

Which was why it wasn’t a competition between them.

Frankly, Payton would’ve disliked J.D. no matter what class he had been in. He just had this way about him that really, really irked her.

Payton got to her office and took a seat at her desk. She checked her computer and saw that she had received thirty-two new email messages during the brief time she had been in Ben’s office. She refrained from sighing out loud in exasperation. Four more weeks, she reminded herself. Four more weeks.

Plowing through the emails, she came across one from the firm’s Executive Committee. Intrigued, Payton opened it and was pleasantly surprised by what she read:

“In order to honor its commitment to the policies created by the Committee for the Retention of Women, the Firm is proud to announce that it has set a goal of increasing the number of female partners by 10% by next year.”

Payton sat back in her chair, re-reading the announcement and considering the reasons behind it. Frankly, it was about time the firm took some action— they were notorious for having the lowest percentage of female partners in the city.

She reached for her phone to call Laney, who she knew would have a similar reaction to the news. Mid-dial, she glanced across the hall and saw J.D. returning from his male-bonding meeting of the Mighty Penis-Wielders with Ben. Payton hung the phone up as she watched J.D. enter his office— she had to see this.

J.D. took a seat at his desk. Just like Payton, he immediately checked his email. There was a moment’s delay as Payton waited in delicious anticipation… then—

J.D.’s eyes went wide as he read what Payton could only presume was the email from the Executive Committee. He clutched his heart as if having an attack, and Payton watched with amusement as he snatched the phone on his desk out of its cradle and dialed someone up with a quickness.

His friend Tyler, Payton guessed, to complain. If she were a betting woman, she’d wager that J.D. was just a tad less excited about the email regarding the retention of women than she.

Score one for Team Kendall, Payton thought.

Not that it was a competition between them.

Not at all.