Bill Thomas must be softening. He's written a new book, called "Lawyers and Thieves." In the old days, this would have called for a joke: "Lawyers and Thieves? Don't you mean Lawyers as Thieves?"
"No, no," Thomas says now, striking a sober, authorial pose.
He's seen the light. In his time, he's been a stand-up comic, a college professor, a National Public Radio commentator, a feature writer for this newspaper whose lunchtime cafeteria riffs became the stuff of legend, a columnist for Washington's Roll Call magazine, and now he's co-authored "Lawyers and Thieves" with blood-and-guts attorney Roy Grutman. The book's sold nearly 30,000 hardback copies for Simon and Schuster.
"Lawyers aren't exactly thieves," Thomas was explaining the other day, delicately stepping around any potentially libelous potholes. "They're more like performers. A courtroom is really a theater. A jury is an audience. And the lawyer who puts on the best performance is the winner."
"Truth," says Thomas, "has nothing to do with it. It's a perception of truth, that's all."
"Lawyers and Thieves" is all about the difference between the two. It's a collection of legal anecdotes, translated into English. Attorney Grutman supplied most of the facts, Thomas put them into words, and the book has the feel of battlefield tales attorneys tell each other when they've deserted the legal bar for the after-hours kind.
How's this for openers?
"My mother," writes Thomas in Grutman's voice, "has sued everyone in our family but me. I used to take that as a compliment, in view of her high principles and low tolerance for losing, but something tells me she must be busy building a case."
That sentence sets the perfect tone for the book. Between chuckles, Thomas and Grutman are building a case against a legal business that's gotten out of hand, one where 40,000 people a year enter the profession, and they're climbing over each other encouraging people to sue their neighbors, and we wind up with former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger claiming a few years back that "75 [percent] to 90 percent of all American trial lawyers are incompetent, dishonest, or both."
"What lawyers are," says Thomas, "is an echo chamber of whatever our culture is doing or saying. People think attorneys are greedy, but we're greedy. Attorneys reflect the personality of the age. They tell the culture what it's thinking. They're not evil. They just reflect us."
For attorney Grutman, it's meant representing the likes of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jackie Collins and Penthouse magazine's Bob Guccione; battling the likes of the Mayo Clinic and Hustler magazine's Larry Flynt; and going head-to-head against such attorneys as Edward Bennett Williams and Louis Nizer.
They're all in the book, but so are some less prominent folks.
There are the lawyers who are casual about bribing witnesses, and the investigators whose specialty is moving the site of car wrecks from where they really took place.
There's the fellow who strolls into Grutman's office offering to sell him accident victims. In exchange for the right money, he'll supply not only the client, but friendly witnesses and a completely fraudulent medical history.
There are the attorneys "paying off gas station mechanics, hospital attendants, undertakers, anybody who could steer business their way. When skid marks had to be shortened, they bribed cops. When medical records needed enhancement, they bribed doctors."
There's even a guy who runs a laboratory for inventing fake injuries, coaching clients on "how to describe nonexistent orthopedic problems and how to limp, hobble and moan."
If it's not exactly Oliver Wendell Holmes' dream of justice for all -- or even Perry Mason's -- it's a kind of road map of the law as it's sometimes practiced today.
"Every answer a witness gives sends a message to the jurors," Thomas and Grutman write. "Some messages speak louder than others, and it's up to the lawyer to be sure that each one supports the central theme of his case . . .
"[Attorney John] Gardner says the plaintiff should never answer a single question on the witness stand without plugging his theme. If the opposing attorney asks his name, the reply, says Gardner, crudely but correctly, should be: 'They screwed me.' 'Where do you work?' 'They screwed me.'
"Repeat something often enough and it starts to sound true. A trial is a contest between two actors, and the side with the most consistently believable lines almost always wins."
"What surprised me," says Thomas, "is that courtroom drama was always boring to me. I never realized how funny it is. Lawyers are funny guys. Courtrooms are the Borscht Belt. If you're not entertaining, if you don't keep people's minds alert, you're gonna lose that jury and the case."
As a former stand-up comic, Thomas knows whereof he speaks. As a former college professor, he also knows about holding people's attention, and about fighting through dry, turgid books.
He's just returned from several months in Moscow, putting together a work on the Soviet economy for Penguin Books.
"Most books on economics are dry," Thomas says. "Most books on the Soviet Union are dry."
Left unsaid is that his book will not be. If "Lawyers and Thieves" is any indication, it couldn't be.