Life & Culture

Taking on the boys’ club

Erica Katz has written a gossipy novel giving the inside track on the world of New York's Magic Circle law firms.


Plenty of people read to understand more about the world, but fewer write a novel to do so. In fact, for Manhattan lawyer Erica Katz, penning her debut was a form of therapy after a decade of long hours, demanding clients and outrageous expense accounts.

“I’ve always sorted my thoughts in writing,” explains New Jersey-born Katz, whose soapy, page-turner of a debut —The Boys’ Club has already been scooped up by Netflix. “The world was changing around me, Donald Trump was elected, the #MeToo movement was at a boiling point, and my thoughts were having trouble sorting themselves. I started to write and the words came out in fiction. It was the most amazing form of therapy I could’ve imagined.”

The resulting novel, written over 18 months during rare annual leave days, is an outrageous, gossipy tale of a naïve associate called Alex at a fictional New York firm, and the scandals she becomes embroiled in. It’s a world of extortionately expensive client lunches, free-flowing booze and endless designer clothes and handbags, not to mention badly-behaved businessmen and competitive colleagues. It’s familiar territory for the author, now 36, who joined a Magic Circle type firm straight out of Colombia Law School, and fell headfirst into the intense culture of “Big Law”.

Still, Katz — it’s a pseudonym, her real name “is actually even more Jewish if you can imagine” — insists the book is not about her experience per se. Klasko & Fitch is not a version of the firm she worked for. She never worked in Mergers & Acquistions, the division notorious for bad behaviour and lack of women (she practised in capital markets) or for a partner like the charming, manipulative Peter Dunn. And she never witnessed the seedy goings-on she writes about, from sexual harassment to freely available cocaine, or from a young lawyer contemplating suicide after a workplace affair to another caught with a prostitute on a company retreat.

“It’s not anyone’s experience who I know, but you need only open a newspaper to know things like this happen every single day,” she says. When she started writing, people queried whether her plotlines would be believable; a few years on, there has been much more discussion of how power dynamics play out. “Now no-one is questioning whether the book is realistic, just whether it happened to me, because they know how often it happens. This isn’t my life, and it’s not the life of people I know. It’s the amalgamation of stories I’ve heard or rumours or stories surrounding me that all happen to one character.”

But some aspects are drawn from life. Alex works round the clock and occasionally uses an office “nap room”; as Katz says, “there’s no real beginning and end to your day. It is 24/7, emails don’t stop ever.”

“The hours and the dinners and the money is the only part of the book that is true to form that I saw,” she says. “When you’re closing a deal and so much money is on the line, no-one cares if you are well-rested or if you see your family and kids.”

Growing up in a family of doctors, Katz knew some Manhattan lawyers, but didn’t have much exposure to the ins and outs of that world. “The general anxiety Alex feels in her first few days is very much true to my experience,” she says. “There is a sort of competitiveness that you don’t necessarily understand why it being is imposed on you.”

She recalls the lavish salary she was paid even as a summer associate and how fascinating she found the glitz and glamour at first. “I grew up outside New York, and I understood nice places. I wasn’t shocked by the nice restaurants but I was shocked by the amount of the money. It’s something you have to reckon with whether that’s the life you want.”

Katz is currently riding out lockdown in her family’s vacation home away from New York, while working as hard as ever. When she signed her book deal, she switched to a management role in her firm. Now with some distance, does she think things will ever shift at the top of an industry like corporate law?

“I don’t know how practically it can change,” she says of the always-on culture. “There’s just work that needs to get done. Someone needs to take care of things, and it makes sense that the people who have been in it the least amount of time should deal with that, because they’re fresher and perkier and maybe don’t have kids yet.”

But the book highlights the sexism, classism and racism that can be endemic, which she thinks can and must change. It’s a particular challenge for client-facing industries. “Your client is not your employer and they can do and say things your employer is not responsible for. Particular care needs to be taken with women and other minorities in client service businesses.”

Equally, she points out that succeeding socially is vital, which can act as a barrier to a more diverse workforce. “I don’t know that people from varying socioeconomic statuses are as well equipped to be social in these fancy lunches and what have you. The playing field isn’t level.”

Her sister-in-law is a surgeon; Katz well knows these issues are not unique to law. Her book, she hopes, will be “a beautiful vehicle to discuss the shortcomings not just in law firms, but corporations, politics, big business — anything with a power hierarchy — and how women and minorities more generally are treated in those places”.

Was Katz prepared for the boys’ club of corporate law before she joined? “You can’t really be prepared for Big Law unless you come from it and you’ve seen it,” she says. “But I think I was more prepared to combat it because of the environment in which I grew up, which was ‘whatever anyone does you can do’ and the same expected of me in every single capacity as my brother. So maybe I was less susceptible to the groupthink than Alex was.”

If she could go back a decade, what would she tell herself? “That the people around me are still just human beings, and they have good days and bad days. I took everything so personally when I was young,” she says.

If Alex shares some of Katz’s characteristics, one she doesn’t is her Judaism. Katz comes from an involved, kosher, Conservative household, attending synagogue regularly. She remains hugely affiliated and her Jewish identity is central to her.

“I had trouble when writing making Alex Jewish,” she explains. “She starts at the firm in September, and I’m like whoah, well does she go home for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? I didn’t know what to do with her there.”

Equally, the character shuts her family out of her day-to-day reality. “I was often expected around the Shabbat table, and when I’m there I’m often talking about what’s happening in my life. It occurred to me that, given the more cultural aspect of Judaism, it would have been much harder for me to slip than it was for Alex.”

Rather than making her character Jewish but a-religious, she chose to keep things vague. “I grew up a little more affiliated and it felt weird to leave out things like Rosh Hashanah and all that stuff.”

It also enabled her to distance herself from the character, the same reason she wrote under a pseudonym. “There are certain parallels in my life that mirror Alex’s and people automatically want to assume the book is not fiction when it’s total fiction,” she says. “If I wrote under my name people would just be trying to figure out what’s real.”

Her next book will be set in the art world — “it’s high-octane and sexy in a way I hope The Boys’ Club is” — and she is watching what happens with the adaptation of her debut (there’s a script in play, but she knows it’s a long road to it being made).

Meanwhile, she is excited to let Alex out into the world, and is planning a socially distanced celebration with friends to mark it. Does she worry about backlash if people recognise themselves in the novel?

“I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of stories came out because of this novel,” she admits, but stresses again that it is “total fiction”. “To the extent that anyone recognises the uglier parts of themselves, I’m not writing about you but I am.

“So if you recognise yourself in the book, that’s on you and I’d encourage you to take a long, hard look in the mirror about where you need to change your life.”


The Boys’ Club is published by Trapeze, this week


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