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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.
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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