Legally Speaking: Life imitates art, even in the law (Part One of Two)

John G. Browning Jan. 8, 2008, 9:30am

I remember watching the movie "The Rainmaker" (adapted from John Grisham's bestseller of the same name), and being bemused by the first meeting between neophyte lawyer Rudy Baylor (played by Matt Damon) and his soon-to-be employer J. Lyman "Bruiser" Stone (Mickey Rourke, who has perfected playing sleazy into an art form).

Stone, a lawyer seemingly as shady as many of his underworld clients, has a huge aquarium behind his desk with an actual shark swimming in it; the irony of this isn't lost on young Baylor. While many attorneys embrace the shark metaphor with tongue firmly in cheek (I've even been known to sport shark cufflinks on occasion), I never thought a lawyer in real life would ever actually have live sharks on display in his office. That is, until I heard of Christopher Gillette.

Gillette, a family law attorney in Bozeman, Mont., was designing his new law office several months when he jokingly asked his architect "what would it take to put a shark in a lawyer's office?"

The plans for the fishy resident got progressively more serious, with bigger and bigger tanks being proposed until Gillette had to draw the line, saying "we're not creating Sea World here."

As it turns out, the 1,000 gallon aquarium will be one of the largest in Montana's Gallatin Valley. The roughly 8-feet-long, 4-feet-wide and 4-feet-high tank, when filled with water, will weigh about 8 tons. The aquarium had to be hoisted by crane through the second-story window of Gillette's downtown office. Engineers and architects had to reinforce the floor joists and create special structural supports to support the tank's weight, measures no doubt appreciated by the watch company on the floor below Gillette's law office.

The $23,000 saltwater aquarium will contain a miniature marine ecosystem, including corals, sea anemones, clownfish, angelfish, venomous lionfish, and a bamboo shark that is expected to grow up to about 2 feet long.

The main attraction, however, will be a blacktip reef shark being flown in from the Caribbean. The shark, which will start out about 2 feet long, can grow to about 5 feet over a span of several years.

Says Gillette, "When it grows big, we'll give it to a zoo."

So what does a shark eat (no, the correct answer is not "anything it wants")? To keep the shark from hungrily eyeing its neighbors, it will be fed a steady diet of shrimp, squid, octopus, fish, frozen vegetable blends and vitamin supplements.

Gillette plans on installing four other fish tanks in the office, albeit on a smaller scale: two 72-gallon aquariums and two 46-gallon versions, all of which will contain sea urchins, starfish and coral reefs. The big tank is built into a wall, viewable from both the office's reception area and a conference room.

But even if you can't make it to Montana, you won't miss out. Once the tank is complete in February, cameras inside the tank will broadcast video of the sharks and other denizens of the deep over the Internet. Those interested will be able to go to and and observe the aquarium's residents.

Gillette feels that the aquarium will help have a soothing effect on his clients, who often are coping with high stress issues brought on by divorce or custody battles.

"I wanted to create an atmosphere where people would feel relaxed and be comfortable discussing very personal issues," the lawyer says. "People seem to be comfortable with fish."

Hopefully, the aquarium's occupants will fare as well. While there is a chance that the shock of being moved to a tank could prove fatal for the sharks and other fish, Gillette is having his contractor, Crystal Clear Aquariums, painstakingly prepare the tank for its new residents. An aquarium representative will handle weekly feedings, and the tank will be equipped with a 24 hour computer-monitoring system that will provide alerts about problems such as changes in water quality.

The concept of lawyers having fun with public stereotypes is certainly not new. Back in 2000, the Dallas-based law firm of Bickel & Brewer gained major attention sponsoring the Dallas Zoo's snake exhibit (keep those fork-tongued jokes to yourself).

But with Christopher Gillette, what began as an innocent joke has mushroomed into quite a project.

I can just see the Mastercard commercial now: Building an 8-ton aquarium - $23,000; one blacktip reef shark - $2,000 (plus airfare); Becoming the living embodiment of a stereotype – priceless.

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