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Onyx reviews: The Associate by John Grisham

The Associate is apparently a deliberate attempt by John Grisham to repeat the feel and runaway success of his second novel, The Firm. In that early novel, Mitch McDeere, a new hire at a law firm, discovers that he is working for the mob and that his life is in danger because of what he knows.

The Associate turns that concept on its ear. Kyle McAvoy had no intention of joining Manhattan's Scully & Pershing, the biggest law firm on the planet, after he graduates from Yale Law School. It was always his plan to do something in legal aid, perhaps in immigration law. However, even before he takes the bar exam, a man pretending to be a federal agent tells Kyle that he is under indictment for an incident that took place several years earlier when he was an undergrad at Duquesne.

In a situation reminiscent of the Duke lacrosse team case a few years ago, a young woman claims that she was raped during a wild campus party. The statute of limitation on rape is twelve years, so Kyle is vulnerable for several more years. The man who approaches him probably isn't a federal agent—at least not the kind he claims to be—but he has Kyle over a barrel. His instructions are simple: Kyle is to take the job he was offered at Scully & Pershing and somehow get himself assigned to a high profile case involving a suit between two companies suing each other over ownership of technology associated with a Pentagon defense contract.

Because no one knows the reason for Kyle's change of heart, he is accused repeatedly of selling out—by his law school professors, his friends, his girlfriend and his father, a small town lawyer from York, PA. Kyle is one of over 100 new associates with Scully & Pershing. Their jobs are brutal; 15% of them will leave after the second year, and only 10% will survive to make partner in seven years. They are machine gun fodder, an endless and renewable supply of disposable labor, permanently linked to their employer by Firm Fones that must always be turned on.

Kyle ends up in Document Review, a mindless position where associates are tasked with reading mountains of paperwork simply so lawyers can claim that every piece of evidence in a particular case has been examined. At other times, Kyle is assigned to write briefs that will never be read. The associates are judged purely on the number of hours they bill, and their value to the firm doubles the minute they pass the bar.

Kyle is more resourceful than his handlers give him credit for, though. A fan of techno-thrillers, he understand how to lull his minders into a false sense of security by establishing a predictable routine. That leaves him free to deviate from the routine when he wants to execute the next step in his battle to win back his life. He enlists the help of some of his college friends, men who were also present during the alleged rape.

One of the attractions of The Firm was the sense that Mitch McDeere was between several rocks and the hardest of places. Readers have the sense that he has no way out and is at very real risk of either being killed or arrested. The same is not true of The Associate. Kyle is so skilled at deflecting and out-thinking his expert adversaries that it's never a question of whether he will get out from under their extortion, but how. The book falls together a piece at a time like bricks in a wall. Kyle gets assigned to the case his handlers want him to infiltrate without having to do anything. Everything he does to counter his handlers succeeds as planned.

The ending is less resolved than most of Grisham's novels. However, it seems that Grisham was more interested in exploring the horrific conditions faced by associates during their indoctrination into the world of corporate law than in the specifics of Kyle's situation. On that level the book succeeds. As a fast-paced thriller with insufficient tension to keep the suspense at a high level, The Associate isn't quite as successful.


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