Book Review by Sapphire Ng
Law of the Jungle: The $19 Billion Legal Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who’d Stop at Nothing to Win
by Paul M. Barrett
Copyright September 2014
Hardcover, 304 Pages
An intoxicating legal spectacle with an extraordinarily melodramatic progression of events from beginning to end. Set in Ecuador’s unorthodox judicial climate, the multibillion-dollar environmental class-action suit Aguinda v. Chevron—the follow-up to Aguinda v. Texaco Inc.—convoluted and containing multiple plot twists, is beyond astounding and even sadly laughable. An absolute page turner, this book is extremely engaging and entertaining, providing a greatly enjoyable reading experience further enhanced by highly-polished writing.
Starring Steven Donziger, a principal player in the plaintiffs’ counsel and a Harvard-educated attorney, this legal narrative serves as a near perfect cautionary tale to legal practitioners. This book grippingly recounts Donziger’s efforts in spearheading a series of questionable actions and therefore engineering his own ultimate professional downfall; as the mastermind to the environmental suit featuring a target verdict that ludicrously ballooned at whim, Donziger unwittingly became the poster boy for lawyerly greed, arrogance and lunacy.
In this immensely colorful narrative of a lawyer gone rogue, “legal warfare” has indeed taken on a whole new meaning—on the part of the prosecution, the legal battle suspiciously devolved into a political scheme, a business machine, and a media spectacle with full-blown sensationalism. Under Donziger’s direction, the strategy of the plaintiffs’ counsel came to include a flurry of tactics seemingly divorced from the actual and earnest practice of law—political pressuring ploys, deceitful collusion, the scripting of partisan trial narrative for the media, the engineering of showy media stunts, and the manufacturing of media outrage against the defendant.
With Donziger’s reckless sidelining of the sanctity of the legal process—he notoriously proclaimed that “all this bullshit about law and facts” was secondary and observed that “rules and evidence mattered far less than emotions and personal relationships”—in addition to his unabashed attempts at transforming the environmental suit into “a vehicle for financial speculation,” and into media fodder spotlighting himself as the “heroic” protagonist, he at best might have seemed unconventionally resourceful. At worst, he gave the impression of being a fraud. However genuine his initial desire to champion the rights of the vulnerable, Donziger’s aggregate actions made the suit come across as a blasphemous legal veneer concealing his pursuit of a range of egoistical, superficial, and self-serving projects.
The reader is offered the arguably priceless opportunity to trace Donziger's precarious and unretractable spiral into the black hole of illusion that winning the case is a must, and that the end justifies the means. Blinded by his desire to win the suit, he surrendered himself to delusions that “extreme countermeasures” and “irregular tactics” would be the right remedy against “a malevolent global oil giant” reminiscent of a “muscle-bound Gulliver” supposedly guilty of “extreme corporate misconduct.” Donziger might have self-alluded when he proclaimed a Texaco lawyer as “corrupt;” his fantasies and imagination came to reign supreme and superseded any remnants of legal reasoning and moral compass.
The book aptly explored an ironic angle featuring Donziger's transition from being an adequately decent administrator of justice committed to serving vulnerable populations and “to saving Indians and the rain forest” to one perpetuating injustice. With his sights set on the winning monetary prize, Donziger paradoxically attempted to impede remediation and to end “the mopping up of the waste oil.” Subsequently showering himself with lavish self-praise on his supposedly innovative role in litigation finance, he also conveniently failed to realize that such deals effectively sidelined the plaintiffs’ cause financially.
This book amusingly contains an array of anecdotes that convinces one that Donziger possessed a rather cringe-worthy knack for alienating allies and ruining professional relationships. His exaggerated hubris was described as verging upon “megalomania.” On a peculiar note, the reader might have been impressed by Donziger’s journalistic gifts, instincts, and creativity nearing the start of the book where these talents appeared to be strategically used to facilitate the lawsuit. It seemed almost a misfortune therefore that it would later dawn upon the reader that Donziger’s seemingly abundant but actually misguided creativity, as exacerbated by his short-sightedness, would ultimately contribute to his undoing and even to the potential premature end to his legal career.
In this bittersweet narrative of a lawsuit spanning almost two decades, and which the prosecution’s “legal” strategy consisted mostly of the theatrical “demonizing” of Chevron and of underhanded tactics, Donziger seemed not only to be back to square one but he stood to lose even more. Faced with retaliating lawsuits, the possibility of professional discipline, personal bankruptcy and more with possibly crescendoing consequences, Donziger might have been described to have “a virtuoso’s touch” when it came to handling promotion and finance for his suit, but this ingenuity certainly did not appear to transfer over to his practice of the law.
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.