Taylor Donovan may have been new to Los Angeles, but she certainly recognized a line of bullshit when she heard one.
It was 8:15 on a Monday morning— frankly, a bit early, in Taylor’s mind anyway, to be dealing with this latest round of nonsense coming from her opposing counsel, Frank Siedlecki of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But hey, it was a gorgeous sunny morning in Southern California and her Starbucks had already begun to kick in, so she was willing to play nice.
Frank’s call had come in just as Taylor had pulled into the parking garage of her downtown L.A. office building. After answering, she had let her opposing counsel go on for several minutes— without interruption, she might add— about the righteousness of his clients’ position and how Taylor and her utterly nonrighteous client should consider themselves lucky to be given the chance to make the whole lawsuit go away for a paltry $30 million. But at a certain point, one could only take so much nonsense in one Monday-morning phone call. Luscious Starbucks or not.
So Taylor had no choice but to cut Frank off mid-rant, praying she didn’t lose the signal to her cell phone as she stepped into the lobby elevator.
“Frank, Frank,” she said in a firm but professional tone, “there’s no way we’re going to settle at those numbers. You want all that money, just because your clients heard a few four-letter words in the workplace?”
She noticed then that an elderly couple had gotten into the elevator with her. She smiled politely at them as she continued her phone conversation.
“You know, if the EEOC’s going to ask for thirty million dollars in a sexual harassment case,” she told Frank, “at least tell me somebody was called a ‘slut’ or a ‘whore.’”
Out of the corner of her eye, Taylor saw the elderly woman—seventy-five years old if she was a day— send her husband a disapproving look. But then Frank began rattling on further about the so-called merits of the plaintiffs’ position.
“I have to be honest, I’m not exactly impressed with your case,” she said, cutting him off. “All you’ve got is a sporadic string of some very minor incidents. It’s not as if anyone slapped an ass or grabbed a boob.”
Taylor noticed that the elderly couple was now subtly but quickly moving away from her to the opposite end of the elevator.
“Of course I’m not taking you seriously,” she said in response to her opposing counsel’s question. “We’re talking about thirty million dollars here!” Instead of shouting, her voice had a laughing tone, which experience had proven to be far more infuriating to her opponents.
Not seeing any reason to waste another minute, she summarized her position with a few simple parting thoughts.
“Frank, this case is a publicity stunt and a shakedown. My clients did nothing illegal, and you and I both know I’ll have no problem proving that to a jury. So there’s no reason to discuss your ridiculous settlement offer any further. Call me when somebody sees a penis.”
Taylor slammed her cell phone shut for emphasis. She slipped the phone into her briefcase and smiled apologetically at the elderly couple. They had their backs pressed against the elevator wall and were staring at her, mouths agape.
“Sorry about the whole ‘penis’ thing,” she said, trying to make amends. “I guess I get desensitized to it.” She shrugged innocently as the elevator announced its arrival at the twenty-third floor with a high-pitched ding. She glanced over at her grandparently co-riders one last time.
“It’s an occupational hazard.”
And with that, the elevator doors opened and she stepped out onto the busy office floor that awaited her.
Taylor loved the sounds of a bustling law office. The phones ringing off the hook, the furiously righteous conversations that spilled out behind closed doors, the printers busily shooting out fifty-page briefs, the mail carts wheeling by as they dropped off court orders— this was all music to her ears. They were the sounds of people working hard.
And no associate— or so Taylor hoped the senior partners agreed— worked harder than she did. From the moment, now seven years ago, she had first set foot in the Chicago office of Gray & Dallas, she had done her best to make sure everyone knew she was an associate who was going places. And now the firm had sent her to Los Angeles to litigate a highly publicized class-action sexual harassment case involving one of the nation’s most upscale department stores. She was fully aware it was a test to see exactly what she was capable of.
And she was more than ready.
That morning, Taylor strolled through the hallway to her office, gliding by her secretary’s desk just as she had done every morning for the past two weeks since coming to Los Angeles.
“Good morning, Linda. Any messages?”
Linda sprung to attention at her desk. There was something about Taylor that apparently made others around her feel as though they needed to look busy.
“Good morning, Ms. Donovan,” Linda replied efficiently. “You do have one message— Mr. Blakely would like to see you in his office as soon as you’re available.”
Taylor paused briefly. That was odd— she hadn’t planned to meet with Sam that morning.
“Did he say what it’s about?”
“Sorry, no, Ms. Donovan.”
Taylor headed into her office as she called back a message to Linda. “Call Sam’s secretary and let him know I’ll be there in five minutes.”
Then she poked her head back out the door and smiled at her new assistant.
“And Linda, remember— it’s Taylor.”
Taylor couldn’t help but pause in the doorway to admire Sam’s office before knocking to announce herself. It was a gorgeous corner office with a massive cherrywood desk and matching bookcases, plush cream carpet, and floor-to-ceiling windows covering two walls.
To her, the richly decorated partner’s office constituted far more than a mere status symbol designed to impress clients and other lawyers. It was an indication of true success. And one day, in the hopefully not-too-distant future, she would have such an office of her own— the sign that she had accomplished the one primary goal of her adult life.
Years ago, Taylor’s parents had made sacrifices in order for her to get where she was standing on that Monday morning. Growing up in Chicago in a decidedly blue-collar neighborhood, her three rambunctious and not particularly academically oriented older brothers had gone to the local boys’ Catholic high school. Taylor, it was first assumed, would similarly go to the local girls’ school. But after seeing their only daughter’s remarkably high grade-school aptitude test scores, Taylor’s parents decided that she deserved the best education money could buy, even if that meant spending money they didn’t have. So, in order to make the annual eighteen-thousand-dollar University of Chicago Lab School tuition payments (while still supporting four kids), her parents took out a second mortgage on their house and her father sold the 1965 Corvette Stingray convertible he had been restoring in the garage.
Deeply appreciative of these sacrifices, Taylor promised her parents that they would never regret the investment they had made in her education. This was a promise that guided her all through high school and college, and eventually on to Northwestern Law. It was a promise that still motivated her to this day. After law school graduation, Taylor had chosen to work at Gray & Dallas for the simple reason that it was the top-ranked law firm in Chicago and one of the best worldwide. It gave her a sense of pride to be part of such a machine.
And she would do whatever it took to succeed there.
Fortunately for Taylor, unlike so many of her law school classmates who had turned to the practice of law because med school was too hard and took too long to make any money, or out of family pressure, or because they simply couldn’t think of anything better to do, she genuinely loved being a lawyer. From the moment she’d conducted her first mock cross-examination in her law school trial advocacy class, everything felt like it clicked into place.
And so, as she stood in the doorway of Sam’s plush partner’s office, she couldn’t help but smile not only in admiration but also in anticipation of what she hoped was soon to come.
One day, she vowed silently to herself. One day.
Taylor straightened her suit and knocked on Sam’s door. He looked up from his computer and smiled warmly in greeting.
“Taylor! Come on in.”
She took a seat at one of the chairs in front of Sam’s desk. In the style of all shrewd attorneys, the guest chairs were positioned six inches lower than Sam’s own, giving him the advantage of looking down on his visitors.
“Settled in yet?” Sam inquired.
Taylor grinned guiltily at the question, thinking of the unpacked boxes scattered along the hallway outside the living room of the two-bedroom apartment the firm had rented for her. “Almost.”
“Moving’s a pain in the ass, isn’t it?”
“It keeps me busy when I’m not here.”
Sam studied her. “Yes, I’ve seen you burning the midnight oil already. You should take some time to settle in before your case gets going full throttle.”
Taylor shrugged determinedly. For her, there was no speed other than full throttle. And Sam Blakely— the head of the litigation group in Los Angeles— was a man she very much wanted to impress.
“I just want to hit the ground running, that’s all.”
Sam had sharp, fox-like facial features that became even more pronounced as he grinned approvingly at Taylor’s all-business style.
“Then tell me how the case is going.”
Taylor eased back in her chair as she gave Sam her summary. “It’s going very well. We have the call for our motions in limine this week— I think we’ll be able to keep out nearly half of the EEOC’s evidence. And one of their lawyers called me this morning to discuss settlement.”
“What did you say?”
Taylor tilted her head coyly. “Let’s just say they understand we’re not interested.”
Sam chuckled. “Good. Keep me posted, and don’t hesitate to stop by if you need any guidance.”
Taylor nodded agreeably, appreciating Sam’s hands-off approach to their case. So far since she’d come to L.A., he had been more than happy to let her take the ball and run with it— a management style she thrived under.
She assumed that would be the end of their meeting. But instead of dismissing her, Sam shifted in his chair as if he had more to say.
“Something else on your mind, Sam?”
His body language right then seemed a little… odd. She didn’t know Sam all that well yet, so she couldn’t read him like she could the partners back home in Chicago. She waited as Sam eased back in his chair and stared at her with a poignant pause, creating the dramatic buildup for whatever he was about to say. Like so many trial attorneys Taylor had come across, Sam appeared to believe in acting out his entire life as if in front of a jury.
“Actually, there is another matter on which I was hoping to get your assistance,” Sam began carefully. “I know we only have you on loan from Chicago for the harassment case, but this wouldn’t be a full-time assignment.”
Taylor was intrigued by this lead-in. She was already working nights and weekends, so she figured this mystery assignment had to be a great opportunity if Sam thought she should squeeze it into her schedule.
“Is it a pro bono matter?” she asked.
Sam leaned back in his chair as he considered this question carefully, like a trapped witness at a deposition. “Well… not exactly. I’d call it more of a favor.”
Taylor’s bullshit radar instantly went into high alert. So-called “favors” for partners generally meant wasted nonbillable hours preparing a bar association speech or researching the DUI laws of Natchitoches, Louisiana, to help out a “wayward but good-hearted” nephew.
“What kind of favor?” Taylor asked, although she already knew exactly what Sam’s response would be. “It’s a very interesting situation…” he’d begin. All partners described the criminal activities of their ne’er-do-well relations as “interesting situations.”
Sam leaned forward in his chair. “It’s a very interesting situation…” he began.
Taylor tried to appear enthusiastic as he continued.
“It’s a favor to one of the partners here, Bill Mitchells,” Sam said. “I’m sure you’re familiar with him— he’s head of the tax group. One of his clients asked him for a favor.”
Taylor could barely keep from rolling her eyes. Great— client criminal relations. The only thing worse than the spoiled prep-school offspring of rich partners was the spoiled prep-school offspring of insanely rich CEOs. She steeled herself for the rest of Sam’s pitch.
But what he said next surprised her.
“As you likely are aware, Bill does tax work for most of the big names in Hollywood. One of his clients, an actor, is about to start filming a legal thriller. He’s asked to work with one of our litigators to get a feel for how real lawyers act in the courtroom. You know, demeanor, where to stand, those kinds of things.”
Sam paused once again for dramatic effect. This provided Taylor an opportunity to digest what he was saying.
Babysit an actor when she was just three weeks from trial?
It had to be a practical joke. Ha ha, yank the chain of the new associate from the Midwest who thinks everyone in Los Angeles is obsessed with celebrities.
Taylor smiled and shook her finger at Sam to let him know she was in on the gag.
“I’m guessing you’re joking.”
But Sam’s face turned serious, and he gave her that “what’s the problem?” look partners give associates when assigning a three-month document review.
He wasn’t joking.
“Let’s be honest, Taylor,” Sam said in his best we’re-all-buddies-here tone. “I’m not going to put a partner on this. I’ve got better uses for those of us that bill out at eight hundred dollars an hour.” He winked at her. In public and around clients, partners loved to put on a big show of feigning embarrassment over their ridiculous billing rates. But behind closed doors, they were a source of great pride.
“However, it’s an excellent client development opportunity,” he went on, “so I need an associate who will make a good impression. You.”
Taylor folded her hands in her lap and thought quickly of the best way to graciously decline Sam’s offer. She knew he meant the opportunity as a compliment, but working with some prima donna actor on his overly melodramatic “You can’t handle the truth!” courtroom scenes was hardly her idea of serious lawyering.
So she flashed Sam her best soft-rejection smile.
“Sam, I’m flattered. But don’t you think one of the associates from this office would be better suited for this kind of project? I’d hate to waltz in here as the new girl and steal their opportunity to work with a Hollywood actor.”
That didn’t sound half bad, she mused. Apparently, she had a bit of a flair for acting herself.
But then Sam topped her with his trump card.
“Well, Taylor, Chicago assures me that you’re the best litigation associate this firm has. If that’s true, then don’t you think it should be you representing us?”
A direct challenge to her skills as a lawyer. Taylor’s kryptonite.
She sighed, having only one answer to that.
“When would you need me?”
Sam grinned victoriously, looking ever fox-like once again. “Thursday.”
For a brief moment, Taylor saw a possible way out of this situation. “Oh… that’s too bad,” she said. “I have to argue those motions to compel on Thursday.” She snapped her fingers. Damn.
But Sam was not about to let her off so easily.
“And as much as I know it will kill you to miss a chance to be in court, I’m sure you can get someone else to cover it.” Then he folded his hands politely, indicating that the discussion was over.
And so Taylor stood up to leave. She gave Sam her best team-player, I-couldn’t-be-more-thrilled-to-squeeze-this-shit-into-my-schedule grin.
“No problem, Sam, I’ll work it all out.”
She turned to leave and had made it all the way to the door before she realized something. She glanced back over her shoulder.
“I didn’t even think to ask— who’s the actor?”
Sam peered up distractedly from his computer, having already turned his attention back to $800-per-hour work.
“Um… Jason Andrews.”
And with those words, Taylor’s hand slipped just the slightest bit on the doorknob.
She turned back toward Sam, trying to appear nonchalant. “Really. I see.”
But unfortunately, her initial reaction had not gone unnoticed. Sam’s face turned serious as he rose from his desk and crossed the room to her.
“You know, Taylor, I told his manager that your reputation in this firm is that you can go head-to-head with any man. And win.” Sam paused meaningfully and stared down at her like an army drill sergeant.
“Do not get starry-eyed on this,” he lectured firmly.
Taylor’s eyes narrowed at the mere insinuation. After Daniel, her days of being starry-eyed, dreamy-eyed, or any other-eyed over any man, celebrity or not, were finished.
Sam was right; she was more than capable of going head-to-head with any man. She had essentially been raised that way. Growing up, her father, a police sergeant, worked double shifts and her mom, a nurse, often worked overtime, so Taylor had frequently found herself being watched by her three older brothers. And in their minds, the only way to handle being stuck after school and on weekends with a girl was to pretend that she was, in fact, a boy. (Albeit one who had pigtails.)
One of Taylor’s favorite movies was A League of Their Own, and in that movie Tom Hanks’s character had a line that had always resonated with her: one of his girl ballplayers was crying after he had chewed her out for missing a play, and Tom Hanks told her, “There’s no crying in baseball.” That could have been the mantra for Taylor’s youth, except in her world apparently, not only was there no crying in baseball, there was also no crying in kickball, hide-and-seek (even when her brothers forgot about her and left her in the neighbor’s shed for two hours), climbing trees, falling two stories out of said trees and breaking her arm, and even fishing when her brothers used her pet caterpillar collection as bait.
Yes, Taylor learned at a very young age that the only way to get boys to shut up and play fairly was to show them that you took crap from no one. It was a lesson that served her well working at a large law firm, where women comprised roughly 15 percent of partners despite the fact that they generally constituted, year after year, more than half of every entering first-year associate class. Somewhere along the way, these women were getting lost, ignored, weeded out, or were choosing a different path.
Taylor, however, was determined not to fall victim to what these law firms accepted as inevitable reality. Even if it meant she had to eat nails for breakfast.
So in response to Sam’s directive that she not get “starry-eyed” on this particular assignment, she folded her arms definitively across her chest, having only one thing to say.
“Not a chance.”
Sam smiled. He nodded, satisfied.
Then something occurred to her. She cautiously asked Sam one last question.
“But I have to wonder, Sam, given the… reputation… of this particular client, did the fact that I’m a woman have anything to do with choosing me for this project?”
Ever the litigator, Sam paced grandly in front of his desk, ready to show off the interrogation skills he had honed over the past twenty years.
“Taylor, in your sexual harassment practice, who do you tell your clients they should have leading their defense team, a man or a woman?”
“A woman,” she replied without hesitation.
“And why is that?”
“Because it makes the client seem more credible if they have a female lawyer saying they treat women fairly.”
Sam paused meaningfully before his imaginary jury. “So then you agree, don’t you, that there are times when— in addition to being the best litigator— your gender can be an advantage to this firm?”
Taylor got the message. Shut up and play the game.
She smiled at her boss.
“Thursday it is.”