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Onyx reviews: The Litigators by John Grisham

The Litigators could have been a significantly different book if John Grisham had altered its tone. It is chock full of the usual Grisham suspects, high-priced lawyers and courtroom scenes, but it is played somewhat for laughs. Not entirely: there's nothing even remotely funny about a young boy who suffers brain damage after ingesting lead from cheap, imported toys. But the book is definitely on the lighter side. It starts off slow, with a description of the various major characters, and nothing even remotely resembling a plot shows up for nearly a hundred pages.

The protagonist is David Zinc, a young Harvard Law grad who has been cloistered in a dark cubicle in the hallowed halls of a prestigious Chicago law firm for several years. He rarely sees the sun and works so many hours a day that he's too exhausted to have sex with his lovely wife, which puts a crimp in their plans to start a family.

David snaps one morning while he's on his way to work. It's a day like every other, and that's part of the problem. He feels like a drone, a cog in a big machine that barely even acknowledges that he exists. When he reaches his floor, he pushes the elevator button for street level and walks off without telling anyone where he's going. He spends the rest of the day getting drunk in a local bar and schmoozing with the other clientele. After he passes out for a while, the bartender puts him in a cab.

Still not ready to go home and inspired by an ad he sees in the taxi, David visits the law firm of Finley & Figg, a self-described "boutique" agency with quarters next to a massage parlor in a strip mall. One of the attractions of this particular location is its proximity to a busy intersection where there are frequent vehicle accidents. Finley & Figg are, in the vernacular, ambulance chasers. Except for a secretary, they are the sum total of their agency, and they survive from month to month on personal injury and divorce cases. They advertise on bus stop benches but argue over expanding to billboards and cable television. The firm can't get any bigger because they can't afford to expand.

Still immensely drunk, David talks himself into a position with their firm. Much to everyone's surprise, when he sobers up the next morning, he still thinks it's a good idea. He gets an office in the attic (but it has windows) and a pittance of a salary, and a share of whatever business he brings in to the agency. He's too young to be having a mid-life crisis, but he needs a change. The move to Finley & Figg probably won't be permanent, but it's a start.

Oscar Finley and Wally Figg are as different as oil and vinegar and bicker like the Odd Couple. That their agency has survived as long as it has is something of a miracle. They rarely confer about clients, Wally has a habit of offering discounts on their already cut-rate prices and making promises that come back to bite them. They've been sued a number of times. Oscar, the senior partner, has an unhappy but long-standing marriage. Wally has been divorced four times, is an alcoholic who is frequently resetting his "days sober" counter and is not above taking sex in payment for services rendered. He's always looking for the one big case that will earn them a ton of money.

He thinks he's found it when he hears about a man who died after taking a cholesterol-reducing drug. After a bit of research, he discovers that other law firms are putting together a class action case against the drug company, so he hitches his wagon to that star and starts trolling for other possible victims of the drug. These are divided into two groups: the highly lucrative dead and the ill-defined but larger group of people who may have been harmed by the drug but are still alive. Gathering expert witnesses and screening clients costs a lot of money, but the potential income is worth it, he argues. Each death case could get $1 or $2 million, of which they will take nearly 40%. Clients and lawyers alike start dreaming about what they'll do once the money starts pouring in.

Normally, in a book like this, readers will side with Finley & Figg (and, especially with David Zinc, who is by far the more sympathetic character) to win against the behemoth drug company. However, the truth is that the lawsuit might be frivolous and the drug in question might be beneficial and not at all harmful. So, when the drug company starts trotting out a herd of lawyers, led by a very attractive and extremely talented lawyer determined to squash the suits, it's hard not to sympathize with them. Though they don't advertise on TV (Wally would like to, Oscar refuses), Finley & Figg are the sort of smarmy, greasy, dodgy attorneys people associate with the worst of the profession.

David goes through the motions, screening clients for the suit while privately working on another case that has much more promise. Through a series of misadventures, though, he ends up having to try the drug case by himself. By this point, he knows the suit has no merit but if they withdraw from it, they will face sanctions, lawsuits and penalties that will bankrupt them all. He has no trial experience and finds himself unable to counter any of the drug company's expert witnesses. However, at the eleventh hour, he may just pull off the unthinkable when he gets one of the defense witnesses on the ropes.

One of the book's strengths is that there are no real bad guys here. Finley & Figg are misguided, but not evil. Greedy, perhaps. The drug company isn't evil, even though it has some skeletons in its closet. A company that imports toys containing lead shows that it has a heart, too. The legal system works the way it should, so that something approximating the truth and justice emerges. David and his wife provide the book's heart, and their wide-eyed innocence and youthful zest counters the jaded venality of Finley & Figg. This could have been a cookie-cutter entry in the Grisham oeuvre, but it isn't: it's an experiment that, for the most part, works exactly as the author intended.

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