Courtroom Hustle: A Review of The Rooster Bar, by John Grisham

The law of the United States of America is a fascinating beast.  It shapes so much of our daily lives behind the scenes.  Labor laws dictate how much workers may be paid and how often they may take a meal break.  Financial laws are meant to ensure proper practices by the banks and large corporations.  Criminal laws inform us what actions are illegal and what actions are perfectly accepted.  However, the law is not always moral or proper.  Laws exist criminalizing things which should be allowed, and actions which should be illegal are legal.  Not too long ago, Canada legalized marijuana nation-wide, repealing laws whose original aid in racist paranoia.  In the Unites States, it is still legal to secretly record conversations in most states.  The legal thriller genre looks at the often-times ridiculousness of the law and uses it for inspiration.

In the world of legal thrillers, no name is more well-known than John Grisham, author of over thirty novels, several collections of short stories, and one non-fiction book.  Grisham originally began his career wanting to be a lawyer.  He graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Law with his J.D. and immediately entered the legal quagmire.  His tenure began with an interest in tax law before the labyrinth overwhelmed him and drove him to criminal practice.  During this time, he was also elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives.  Grisham wrote his first novel, A Time to Kill, during this period of his life.  The novel took him four year to complete and only began after Grisham witnessed an intense trial which formed the plot basis of the novel.  The book was a disastrous flop, but his second, The Firm, was a complete success, even starring Tom Cruise in the film adaptation.  Grisham quit the law immediately and devoted himself to writing full time after that.

The Rooster Bar is Grisham’s latest legal thriller, after a brief break from the genre in Camino Island.  The novel is a fictionalized tale inspired by the real-life shady practices of for-profit law schools in the United States, and for-profit schools in general.  It is a well-known, completely legal, scam by now.  For profit schools will accept any student, regardless of grades, drive, or potential.  These students cannot afford the exorbitant cost of a school which does not receive outside funding and whose stated mission is to make money.  However, the government is more than willing to loan enormous amounts of money to these students to pay the tuition.  The students go into debt, finish their schooling with an abysmal graduation rate, and fail the bar exam when the time comes.  They do not find jobs which pay enough to absolve them of their loans, and not even bankruptcy forgives the debt.  They default, and the for-profit school pockets the money.  All of this is completely legal.

The three heroes of The Rooster Bar are Mark Frazier, Todd Lucero, and Zola Maal.  All three are students enrolled in the fictional Foggy Bottom Law School, a for-profit law school.  All three are heavily in debt, with loans combining nearly a million dollars.  They are not prepared for the bar exam, and only Mark has a legal job lined up for after graduation, but even that is up in the air.  If you have attended college or graduate school anytime in the past fifteen years or so, this is a familiar status.  Loans flow like fine wine, and saddle students in debt which follows them well into their adult lives.  In The Rooster Bar, most of the plot is carried by Mark and Todd, which Zola playing a supporting role.  However, Zola’s story is anything but inconsequential and allows Grisham to touch on a very different, though just as pressing, social issue.

After Mark and Todd’s best friend, and Zola’s boyfriend, Gordy commits suicide after he stops taking his bipolar medication, the three have an idea.  Gordy had researched the great for-profit law school scam and broke down reality around them.  They were never going to become real lawyers.  So why not become fake ones?  Early in the novel, Mark and Todd witness how easy it is to pass as a lawyer.  No one ever asks if you are really a lawyer.  No one questions your right to appear before a judge if you step up to the bench.  No one even thinks to ask for your bar association number to verify that you are certified to practice law.  The two watch lawyers hustle clients at the police station and in courtroom hallways, signing clients on the spot to handle their minor cases.  DUI’s, speeding tickets, petty theft, minor assaults.  They see a system full of people who do not know how to handle it, and they step in.  At least in the beginning, the scam goes well.  They know enough, and have watched enough, to actually help their clients.  However, with their limited education, things go wrong immediately.

Grisham, and extension, his characters, believe in escalation.  When things start to go wrong, when the story begins to go stale or plateau, do something bigger.  Do something bold.  While Mark, Todd, and Zola are enacting their own scam, an enormous class action lawsuit is brewing in the background.  Echoing the Wells Fargo scandal, Grisham’s fictional bank, with ties to the for-profit law school scam, has been opening millions of fake accounts for their customers and charging them fortunes in tiny, erroneous fees.  When the fake lawyers are final at the end of their rope, they decide to bring this class action into the story in a big way.  Ever since Gordy’s suicide at the beginning, readers may wonder when the for-profit school storyline comes back into play.  The more our heroes get away with, the bolder they become, until the perfect target for their scam is the scammer who created the situation in the first place and who has taken advantage of countless law school students.

The Rooster Bar is a fresh legal thriller from a man who has turned the writing of legal thrillers into a formula.  The characters are different from Grisham’s other characters, and the stakes are far lower, which makes for an enjoyable read.  One thing which has not changed, however, is Grisham’s dialogue.  It is a common theme throughout all his writing that Grisham is not the gold standard for writing character dialogue.  However, his commitment to story above all else, and his willingness to create well-rounded, diverse characters, often make up for the stiff speech.  John Grisham has written over thirty novels, with an average of two a year, and shows no signs of slowing down or stopping in the immediate future.  As long as the law remains an obtuse, convoluted, and ridiculous thing, there is material for his books.  If you wish to see the flaws inherent in the system, then there is no better author than John Grisham.

The Rooster Bar can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 8 days

Next on the List: Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

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