Revenge of the law-school borrowers
John Grisham’s fans await his annual legal thriller the way a starved jury anticipates free donuts in the break room. Through 30 novels, the master behind such big-screen bestsellers as The Firm and The Pelican Brief has kept us guessing about the fate of lawyers in love and peril.
Still, even the seasoned author was surprised to find the plotlines of his latest thriller popping up in the news as he was bringing them to life in his arresting new tort-ture tale, The Rooster Bar.
As the book opens, the suicide of third-year law school student Gordy shocks friends Mark, Todd and Zola into realizing that they’ve been suckered into acquiring six-figure student loan debt to attend the third-tier, for-profit Foggy Bottom Law School in Washington, D.C. Not only is the school so mediocre that its graduates stand only a 50-50 chance of passing the bar exam, but according to Gordy’s parting notes, it’s one of a chain owned by Hinds Rackley, a New York hedge-fund manager who also happens to own the very bank that will collect on their student loans.
Disheartened and desperate, the trio forgo their last semester of law school, assume false identities and form the bogus law firm Upshaw, Parker & Lane (short for Unlicensed Practice of Law), a high-stakes gamble designed to sustain them until they can win back their futures by exposing Rackley’s scam. To complicate matters, Zola’s immigrant family is simultaneously being deported to Senegal.
Student debt? For-profit schools? Brazen billionaires? Immigration issues? Grisham had no inkling when he started the book that its themes would soon play out on MSNBC.
“This story goes back two or three years when I read an article in the Atlantic called ‘The Law-School Scam’ that I was fascinated by, because I was not aware that we had such institutions as for-profit law schools in this country,” Grisham says by phone from his office in Charlottesville, Virginia. “I was stunned and became captivated by the issue.”
Intrigued, the former lawyer visited a few law schools. In one public law school, every third-year student carried debt, the average being $75,000. In another top-tier school, a third of students graduated without debt, but for the two-thirds who had debt, the average was $260,000.
“It’s astonishing, and the amounts were even greater when you combine grad school and undergrad,” he says. “Once they’re out, they can’t afford to start a family . . . to buy a house or a car. They’re mired into this unbelievable debt that’s choking them.”
While rare, some debt-strapped students choose the risky track Grisham’s fictional trio takes and hustle clients without a license in hospital and court waiting rooms.
“I always worry about the story as I’m writing it—how much of this can I make plausible and believable—and it’s probably a bit implausible that they would go to this extreme to actually set up a law firm with business cards and fake names,” Grisham admits. “But if you’ve ever been through the suicide of a friend, it really can knock you off your stride; it’s not something that you can deal with easily. That’s why I introduced the tragedy of Gordy’s death, to kind of push these guys over the edge.”
Grisham targets sky-high student debt in an intriguing thriller that parallels real-life events.
He had no such challenge bringing Hinds Rackley to life; news reports did that for him. “Trump loves these for-profit schools. He couldn’t make one go. . . . He tried . . . and it crashed,” Grisham says. “But with the Department of Education now, you can’t walk in Congress for all the lobbyists hired by the for-profit college industry. They have tons of money, and they’re getting whatever they want because they have all the money. It’s a rotten system.”
Likewise, Zola’s DACA-esque immigration battle parallels real-life events. “The more I wrote about Zola and her family, the more I really enjoyed that subplot,” he says. “And then I had the benefit of Trump taking office in January, and with all the anti-immigration stuff and the ramped-up ICE raids, that just fell into my lap.”
Grisham was a practicing lawyer when he attained superstardom with the release of The Firm, which became the bestselling novel of 1991. He now has more than 300 million books in print worldwide, including novels, short stories, nonfiction and a children’s series.
Though he was taken with the cutting-edge storylines he rather presciently wove together in The Rooster Bar, Grisham says he felt compelled to make one adjustment.
“I set the book in 2014 and not 2017, because the bubble is bursting with these for-profit law schools because they’re too expensive, they’re not any good, you can’t pass the bar, and you can’t find a job,” he says. “It’s not sustainable because of the job market. That’s why we’re watching it blow up.”
Without revealing the book’s ingenious ending, suffice it to say that Mark, Todd and Zola ironically reveal themselves to be exactly the kind of creative, caring problem-solvers and risk-takers that the best lawyers are made of.
“Well, that’s the beauty of fiction!” Grisham chuckles. “At some point, you suspend disbelief and you make them a whole lot smarter and a whole lot luckier than they really should be. That’s when storytelling kicks in. Of course, they’re your heroes and you want them to succeed. Even though they’re doing some bad things and breaking a bunch of laws, you’re on their side. Let’s just say they’re smart and they’re lucky.”
This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.
(Author photo by Billy Hunt.)