Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The King of Torts by John Grisham

There was his face, in one of those hideous sketches made famous by The Journal, and just above it was the headline
THE KING OF TORTS, FROM $40,000 TO $100,000,000 IN SIX MONTHS. Under it was a subtitle: "You gotta love
the law!"

I was worried about reading this Grisham book and making it only my second blog post here.   I am a lawyer, but I have not read anything else by Grisham...I promise.  I feared I would just LOVE Grisham and  be like that old lady from North Dakota who wrote an absolutely glowing review of Olive Garden, which was roundly mocked by the city-types (see http://www.grandforksherald.com/event/article/id/231419/).  Unfortunately for me (and Grisham, I guess), I did not come away as impressed as Ms. Hagerty was about Olive Garden.  Although, the book did remind me of Olive Garden...

First, like Olive Garden, Grisham is predictable.  The plot is simple.  Clay Carter is a bored and slightly overqualified public defender who falls ass-backwards into a lucrative mass tort against a pharmaceutical company.  After this initial success, Clay thinks he's invincible - and a relative orgy of financial excess and free-wheeling settlements follow. Then, of course, there's a fall from grace - a fall that Grisham couldn't have made any clearer:

Throughout the long night, Clay drowned in self-pity—his badly bruised ego; the utter humiliation among peers,
friends, and employees; the delight of his enemies; the dread of tomorrow and the public flogging he would take in
the press, with no one to defend him.

Finally, Clay, and the reader, learn a lasting lesson from this experience: money isn't everything.  Bet its the first time you've heard that one!  

Second, like the food at Olive Garden, everything in this book is plain and one dimensional.  The supporting characters are all stereotypes: there's the street-wise black guy, the whoring gold-digging blonde, the ambitious young associate and the lazy mooching roommate.  The most absurd characters, by far, were the group of plaintiff lawyers.  They were all slick, fast-talking, uncaring, money-hungry, morally deficient, and universally hated by all, including their own clients.  Consider this quote from a dissatisfied client (a.k.a. any client, ever), which perfectly encapsulates the general attitude towards plaintiff lawyers: 

"You're a bunch of crooks, you know that? I don't know who's worse—the company that made the drug or my own
lawyers who're screwing me out of a fair settlement."
"Sorry you feel that way."
"You're not sorry about a damned thing. Paper says you're getting a hundred million bucks. Thieves!"
Its painfully obvious that Grisham thinks plaintiff lawyer's sole purpose in this world is to put good companies out of business for honest mistakes.  In one case, Clay brings a class-action against a brick manufacturer who made a deficient batch of mortar, and his aggressive negotiations force the company to declare bankruptcy. Grisham portrays the brick company as the benevolent corporation who made an honest mistake and the plaintiff lawyer as the evil outsider looking for profit (as he did in every case described in the book).  He spends an entire chapter talking about how Clay's actions led to the devastation of a small town.  This view is overly simplistic and wrong; and I spend most of my day fighting plaintiff lawyers.  The purpose of this book, however, is not to present all sides of an argument.

Despite the predictable plot and simplistic characters, King of Torts, like Olive Garden, gets the job done.  Its just fun to read about large settlements, private jets, yachts and tropical island vacations.  With all my complaints about Grisham, the dude can write.  He dumbs down big ideas, but does do a good job concisely explaining legal details without slowing his fast-pace plot.  Despite its predictability, I never wanted to put the book down.   So if you're looking for the reading equivalent of an Olive Garden meal, read this book and don't complain.


Christopher said...

Do you think it's supposed to be funny that his name is Clay and he's fighting a brick manufacturer?

billy said...

No, Grisham just loves vaguely WASPy, fratty names.

Grisham has written a couple of good books, especially his non-fiction, but lord have mercy is a one trick pony. I have read probably 6-9 of his books, but if you gave me a list and short plot summaries I couldn't pick them out. They should basically all be called "The Lawyer" and the plot is always "A combination of hubris, plaintiffs attorneys and Big Law ruin a somewhat likable young attorney and he barely escapes death/destitution/prison."

If you like Grisham don't read more than 3 or 4 (and DEFINITELY don't read the Street Lawyer, the preachiest, most bullshit book I've ever read). Also, I love the "money isn't everything" lesson coming from super rich John Grisham.

Brent Waggoner said...

I really enjoy early Grisham but I haven't read anything of his for the past few years. I think he had a pretty good run with A Time to Kill through, maybe, The Brethren. His books are somewhat repetitive, but his books that try to do something different tend to be pretty bad. I prefer when he stays in his legal thriller sweet spot.

And yeah, The Street Lawyer is really terrible. Start of his decline, I think, although The Brethren was pretty good and it was after.