One of the things I didn't expect when I became a lawyer was just how much it would ruin legal fiction for me. So much of what I see and read is so far from reality, it's hard for me not to yell out, "No, it doesn't work like that!" Brand-new attorneys do not argue major issues in court; no one bursts into the courtroom with a last-minute piece of evidence that will win the case. From "Ally McBeal" to "How to Get Away With Murder" and, of course, "Law & Order" — being a lawyer ruined them all.
But what about John Grisham? His latest novel, "The Rooster Bar," centers on a group of law students at a third-tier, for-profit law school who find themselves on the losing end of a scam. When I began the book, I braced myself for disappointment: I would point out all the ridiculous mistakes, nonsense subplots and sloppy law. Sure, Grisham is a former attorney, but I figured after 30-plus books he would have descended into cliche.
Well, mea culpa, Mr. Grisham. I stand corrected. This is a legal book that lawyers can read. (It's also pretty great for non-lawyers, too.) Not only is it free of any major legal gaffes, but it also addresses a problem within the legal profession that deserves attention: the deceptive practices of for-profit law schools.
Grisham's three characters — Mark, Todd and Zola — have eagerly entered the Foggy Bottom Law School with hopes of high-paying careers after graduation, dreams encouraged by the school's marketing material and loan officers. Alas, by their third year, they have learned the hard truth: The law is an elitist profession, and it is practically impossible for the students to get any job upon graduation, let alone the mythical six-figure positions that go to graduates from top-tier law schools. Instead, students from little-known, albeit expensive, schools find themselves saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars of student debt, no prospects and little chance of ever repaying their loans.
In Grisham's smartly told tale, a tragedy strikes, and Mark, Todd and Zola decide to begin on a path that might seem improbable but was scarily plausible to me: They drop out of school, head over to D.C. municipal court, and, without a license, start hustling clients. They assume false names and set up as many legal scams as possible and make as much money as fast as they can.
I'm sorry to say that I believe in the hectic world of traffic and municipal courts someone could easily pretend to be a lawyer. They would be caught eventually but could definitely get away with it for a short while. The other legal malfeasances, largely relating to class actions and medical malpractice, are believable as well. Sure, there are some lucky coincidences and things happen on a very expedited timeline in this fast-paced novel, but no more than you would find in your average thriller.
Moreover, "The Rooster Bar" highlights the appalling way that many for-profit law schools ruin many of their students.
In the author's note, Grisham writes that his book was influenced by an article in the Atlantic called "The Law-School Scam," a lengthy investigation of for-profit law schools. Bravo to him for using his star power to shine another spotlight on an all-too-real problem in this gratifying and all-too-real book.
Carrie Dunsmore is an attorney who lives in the Boston area. She blogs at queenofbooklandia.com.
By John Grisham
Doubleday. 368 pp. $28.95