A review of Uncivil Liberties in the Vermont Bar Journal, Spring 2018
By Bernie Lambek, Esq.
Reviewed by Jennifer Emens-Butler, Esq.
Imagine my excitement and surprise to receive an advance reader copy of a brand new, first novel, from Montpelier lawyer, Bernie Lambek. As journal readers may recall, Attorney Lambek was the subject of my first “Pursuits of Happiness” interview, written after I discovered that the attorney I knew as an excellent lawyer and adversary, was an accomplished ping-pong player. And now, I find, again by surprise, that the attorney I see enjoying Wilaiwan’s lunch, almost daily, is also a published author of legal fiction. Of course, the photo of the author on the back cover shows Bernie at his regular luncheon hangout spot.
What a treat to be able to set aside my electronic “stack” of nationally acclaimed legal thrillers and courtroom dramas to read Uncivil Liberties, by Bernie Lambek. While I tend to riffle through legal thrillers like bad TV --and they keep me returning with their sensationalist twists and heavy action-- these novels tend to blend together as I search through my kindle struggling to recall which legal thrillers I’ve already read.
Uncivil Liberties immediately feels refreshing, if alone because it is set in Montpelier. From the start, the feeling is almost like being part of an inside joke, as the author drops plays on local names left and right, like the town of Riverbury to the North and Northwood to the south, or as the characters dine at the all too familiar Sacred Grounds Café or the Byway Diner on Route 302. The setting feels cozy and familiar, right down to the scene of the novel’s focal death in Mahady park.
The main character, Sam Jacobson, emulates the author himself, which gives the character depth, and highlights some endearing self-deprecation. The combination of what can only be perceived as real emotions and experiences with the fictional character renders Sam a truly believable and lovable character. The reader glimpses life as a small-town, Vermont lawyer, dealing with high-profile cases, as well as lowprofile cases, all while heavily immersed in a small, vibrant community.
The novel balances seemingly basic lessons on civil liberties and equality, which could be interpreted simultaneously as too simplistic but yet too heavy-handed, with higher-level refreshers for lawyers on old friends in the First Amendment world like the Tinker or BONG HiTS 4 JESUS lines of cases. Those of us who have visited high schools to speak about the Constitution, and particularly the First Amendment, never tire of discussion about the nuances of those cases. Even Constitutional scholars can put aside the lesson and enjoy the entertaining characters in a gripping whodunit that is set beautifully around such fundamental civic issues.
Despite its fast pace and veiled simplicity, Uncivil Liberties demonstrates so well how being true to the basic concept of free speech can put you squarely on opposite sides of politics and popular opinion, while defending the Constitution. The brief case descriptions intertwined with the main characters’ social interactions in the community, allows any reader to sympathize with the main characters as they grapple with some unpopular consequences of protecting freedoms.
Uncivil Liberties is worth the read. Explore hate-speech, equality, religious freedom, community and the practice of law in Vermont, all without getting bogged down, and all while enjoying a fast-paced legal mystery, cozy and familiar. Visit www.bernielambek.com to order your copy!
Jennifer Emens-Butler, Esq. is the Director of Education and Communication at the Vermont Bar Association.