21 December 2011

The Litigators by John Grisham

Finally, on page 92, after a long, tense stretch with hope rising warily, my heart began to sing.

After all these years – a real, super-duper John Grisham! Since The Street Lawyer in 1998, he turned out more than a dozen duds. It seemed as if the steam had run out. Eager readers leapt on each new title with anticipation – only to fall away, disillusioned. Had he lost it? Was he holing up (in the Caymans, perhaps), sated, exhausted, and having outsourced his brand and pretty straightforward formula to a team of lesser writers without the ability to cast the spell of the master? One damp squib followed another, managing a slight spike with The Last Juror.
Now, finally, the real Grisham is back. David Zinc, hero of The Litigators, is an overworked lawyer at a plush Chicago law firm. His hourly billing is $500 and, like others of the tribe so familiar to Grisham readers, he’s so overworked that, as his financial assets multiply, his health and family remain neglected.
In another – faraway – section of the city, Oscar Finley and Wally Figg run a ‘boutique’ firm and practice a variety of law best classified by the name of their dog AC – short for Ambulance Chaser.
John Grisham was responsible, long before Ally McBeal, for bringing phrases like ‘ambulance chaser’, ‘probate’, ‘file a motion’, ‘deposition’ and even ‘DUI’ – driving under the influence – into the mainstream consciousness of readers in faraway India. Through his stories, we’ve become familiar with any number of situations which engender hatred, arrogance, greed, revenge and the other emotions that underlay the territory that lawyers deal with. Grisham’s books have introduced us to a range of situations in civil and criminal law, product litigation, the homeless, those awaiting the conclusion of a death sentence, dramatic verdicts overturned by appeals, and many more. The dip in his readability followed his move from the fast-paced legal thrillers he excelled at writing, to books which continued to be based in law but began to focus more on other issues in which he was personally interested, such as baseball, a lifelong passion, and the rural south where he grew up, the second of five children of a construction worker and a homemaker.
Even in his most ‘blockbuster’ book, Grisham was always a bit of a social activist. There’s invariably an underdog – or more than one – whose moments in the sun the reader experiences vicariously. Important characters often present a major real-life-type flaw such as a loved one in prison, a one-night-stand, or some other example of human frailty we need to forgive and live with. Bonds within families, and in particular between couples, are strong and satisfying.
Through the peaks of plot, Grisham’s language is laidback and unselfconscious, with a liberal sprinkling of cute phrases. It may not be high literature – but you won’t find smut or graphic violence either. There’s not much in a Grisham book that you might want to protect your children from. And in 2010, in a superb Marketing move, John Grisham wrote his first book specifically for children, introducing the child lawyer Theodore Boone. Theo is a 13-year-old schoolboy and he knows more about the law than most lawyers in his city. Young Lawyer was great fun and, under guise of a racy plot, covered the basics of court procedure and etiquette as well as some common USA laws and their application. Reading it, more than one Indian pre-teen I know dived straight into the adult Grisham books, devouring them stealthily under the bedcovers instead of preparing for their Unit Tests, having placated their proud parents with the thrilling news that they had decided to study law and become lawyers when they grew up.
Sadly, the next Theodore Boone book, The Abduction, released earlier this year, did not live up to its predecessor. It was good to meet the old familiar characters – but the plot just did not have teeth – a situation Grisham fans had no choice but to resign themselves to while they waited stoically for his next. Classic Grishams, the Theodore Boone books also incorporate human weakness and emotion through different family formats.
David Zinc too is a typical Grisham hero – young, brilliant, handsome, likable. Remember Mitch McDeere in The Firm? Like him, David is also a graduate of Harvard Law School; he’s also married to a warm, supportive, intelligent (and beautiful) woman with whom he shares a loving, passionate relationship. Like Rudy Baylor in The Rainmaker, David has no trial experience whatever – but his performance in court showcases his hard work, ingenuity, and fine legal brain as he takes on a veteran with an impeccable track record who has tried and won the biggest cases of all. Like Clay Carter in The King of Torts, there are moments in his career when you will tremble for him, fearing that all is lost.
David, by a strange turn of events, has joined Finley & Figg just as Wally is preparing to file a suit against Varrick, a pharmaceutical giant. Varrick has survived a $400 million settlement for a denture cream that caused zinc poisoning; a $450 million settlement for a stool softener that backfired and clogged things up; a $700 million settlement for a blood thinner that cooked a bunch of livers; a $1.2 billion settlement for a migraine remedy that allegedly caused high blood pressure. Finley & Figg, on the other hand, is a law firm that a clerk, describing it to the incredulous judge to whom Wally’s case has been assigned, writes, “A 2 man ham and egg operation; advertises for quickie divorces, DUIs, the usual criminal domestic, injury practice; no record of any filings in federal court in the past 10 years; no record of jury trials in state court in past 10 years, no bar association activity; they do occasionally go to court – Figg has either 2 or 3 DUIs in past 12 years; firm was once sued for sexual harassment, settled.”
The Litigators is a story about how the ‘mass tort’ business works. A bad drug is identified. The plaintiffs’ lawyers go into a frenzy rounding up cases. Lawsuits are filed. The big defense firms respond with an endless supply of expensive legal talent. Both sides ‘slug it out’ until the drugmaker gets tired of writing ‘fat checks’ to its lawyers. As things get settled, the plaintiffs’ lawyers ‘rake in huge fees’, and their clients get far less than they expected. When the dust settles, the lawyers on both sides are richer; the company cleans up its balance sheet and develops a replacement drug. ‘Mammoth’ corporations know when to fight, when to settle, how to settle cheap, and how to appeal to the lawyers’ greed while saving their company ‘tons of money’.
The Litigators is pervaded right through with the soothing tones of the underdog singing hallelujah. David rescues himself from the rat race; he somehow resurrects the dubious Finley & Figg; he finds suitable alternative sources of income; he achieves justice for illegal immigrants being exploited by their employers; he wins a handsome settlement for the immigrant parents of a young victim of lead poisoning. He even earns solidarity from a former colleague which enables him to stand up against a hacker who has insulted his wife.
Some Grisham books end abruptly, leaving things to the reader’s imagination – but not this one; all ends are neatly tied up, with realistic and fulfilling outcomes for all
(In case all this sounded awfully familiar to you ... yes ... you read it before ...in the Open magazine issue of 12 December 2011 ...)


  1. That is alright if it has compensating benefits.
    You should see their lists.

  2. Elaine had this book on one of her shows recently. The Book Report is a great show for all book lovers!