Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Dr. Instalawyer's Book Review:

Ironically, attorney and author John Grisham hates lawyers. He's certainly made a fortune over the years eviscerating his highly fictional lawyers. One sees this enmity in "The Firm," where the naive young lawyer finds himself working for the mob, in "The Runaway Jury," where the lawyers on both sides of a tobacco case can't wait to buy a verdict from a juror, and in his latest, "The King of Torts," where the lousy lawyers du jour are those in the mass torts field.

Grisham's idea of proper lawyerly behavior, based on his books, seems to be that any self-respecting lawyer (1) will never settle and always try his case, regardless of the situation and the client's best interest, (2) will find a way either to lose his fee or never collect it at all, and then (3) will find a way to flee the jurisdiction, vowing never to practice law again. It happened in "The Firm," "The Rainmaker," "The Runaway Jury" [more or less], and probably others that I can't think of right now. "The King of Torts" lives up to this standard Grisham template.

Grisham's latest questionable morality tale revolves around young J. Clay Carter II [you can tell Grisham doesn't like the lawyer when he has the character use an initial on the first name, by the way]. Carter is in a dead end public defender job, and would like a better paying position, when he is approached, almost literally in the dark of night, by the devil [well, metaphorically, at least]. Carter is offered the faustian deal: sell his soul for millions. All he's got to do is solicit clients, lie to them, misrepresent his interest, and engage in other highly questionable behavior.

With little hesitation, and with less thought about strategy, tactics and ethics, he grabs at the money. In short order, he collects a ton of money under less than proper circumstances, and leaps at the chance to use improperly obtained inside information to file a gigantic class action lawsuit against a pharmaceutical manufacturer. Oh, and incidentally, he gets to violate about a half dozen federal securities laws in personal stock buys while he's at it.

He makes even more millions from the class action, ignores his class action representative clients, files an ill-considered class action suit, spends millions on advertising and improper client solicitation, buys a $45 million jet, obscenely overpays his new employees, gets sued for legal malpractice, gets beat up because of a class action he foolishly refuses to settle, crashes and burns, files for bankruptcy protection, and -- wait for it -- takes the girl and the private jet and leaves the country, vowing never to practice law again.


Actually, only a half yawn is deserved here. Grisham has next to no character development. Our [anti-] hero swings back and forth between smart and conscientious, and dumb and dumber. Like most Grisham characters, he has little or no relationship with family members, and while the book professes that he loves the female interest, it's hard to tell by he way he acts. Redemption, according to Grisham, apparently is gotten only by getting the crap physically kicked out of you. The only thing Grisham does well is tell the story. That's always been his strength -- the mechanics of relating the story. Substance is something different.

What gets me more than anything is Grisham's horrible -- and largely unwarranted -- stereotyping of plaintiffs' lawyers. There is not one decent, effective, well-meaning lawyer in this book.

On the one hand, we have the mass tort "vultures," a term he uses on multiple occasions. Grisham clearly wants to have these guys taken out and shot. In his world, they care nothing for the clients, are interested only in the fees, have no intention of trying their cases [and couldn't if they had to, it's implied], and are looking to soak the target defendants simply because they can and without due regard to fairness.

On the other hand, we have the paragon of lawyerly virtue: the small practitioner who always tries his cases, never settles, and hasn't lost a case in 20 odd years. He lectures Clay on how he's ruining lawsuits for good ole boys like him, and then kicks our hero out of his office unceremoniously. Now, the irony here is that our mass tort vulture makes a recovery for his thousands of clients, while the good ole boy turns down a settlement offer of miilions and loses before a jury. Apparently, in Grisham's world view, it's better to fight the good fight and lose, one client at a time, than it is to get some [even if not enough] compensation for many thousands. I don't know about you, but if I were a client in the former category, I'd be a lot madder than if I were in the latter category.

Ultiimately, Grisham always writes about selling out, and then copping out. Each of his books dealing with personal injury lawyers has included these elements. Even "The Rainmaker." In that one, recent law school grad Rudy Baylor, because he needs a job, goes to work at a personal injury firm, where he's forced to go to the hospital and troll for unsuspecting injury victims. In 16 years at the bar, I have never done that, although I guess there are some hustlers who do resort to such scummy tactics. Ultimately, after proving he can try a good case and after putting his defendant out of business, he just hangs it up and runs away anyway. Same story, different names.

In "The King of Torts," Clay Carter sells his soul to the devil in a big way, and then, when he has lost it all, he bugs out. He doesn't try to be a better lawyer; he doesn't use the skills he develops to help people; he just surrenders his license and flees, essentially unscathed. Just like all Grisham's other lawyer characters. Not, however, like any lawyer I know.

I hate lawyer jokes; I don't tell them and don't put up with them when I'm around, because people believe them! "The King of Torts" is just a 372 page lawyer joke, and the punch line is getting stale. Enjoy the carnage as fiction if you like, but don't take it seriously.

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