John Grisham sat down with us this morning for an exclusive blog interview to discuss his new book, The Associate. The book’s main character, Kyle McAvoy, is a Biglaw associate with a mysterious past and intriguing future.
In his previous books, Grisham has explored emotional and ethical costs of practicing the law in various forms. But his latest book takes dead aim at the life, and lifestyle, of junior associates at top Manhattan law firms.
A lot of Kyle McAvoy’s Biglaw experience will ring true to most readers of Above the Law. We found out that Grisham’s depictions of Biglaw life are so accurate because typical associates told him the truth:
I found some wonderful blogs where associates post anonymously their stories. Beautiful stories….
But my best research was done by a research assistant that spent one year in the law…. He knew a ton of lawyers in the big law firms in New York. He told them up front what he was doing [researching for Grisham's new book] and that their stories would be kept anonymous, and they just unloaded on him…. Most of it went into the book.
The book contains scenes that are easily recognizable to most Biglaw associates, from the mind-numbing experience of document review, to the attorney who literally passes out due to exhaustion.
But we wanted to know if Grisham modeled the book’s central firm, Scully & Pershing, on any individual real-life firm. Grisham said that he unequivocally did not:
I was prepared to go to a big law firm and get inside and walk around and kick the tires. But I didn’t want to do that because I knew the portrayal would be unflattering and I didn’t want to embarrass any particular firm.
In fact, Grisham thought about changing the name of the fictional Scully to avoid any possibility of confusion with Skadden.
Why is the take on life in Biglaw so “unflattering”? Grisham explains that the wasted potential he explores in The Associate mirrors what he sees in the corridors of the nation’s top law firms.
More details, after the jump.
We asked Grisham if he thought that Biglaw represented an immense waste of intellectual and social potential:
Yeah, sure. Kyle is a young man with enormous potential. I think “waste” is the right word to use, because nothing he does is important for the brief period of time that we know him. And the people around him, his fellow associates — we never see them doing something that they want to do that is important.
The book is very critical of the type of a law practice because I think it’s ridiculous.
So does Grisham have any advice for people who find themselves stuck “on the treadmill,” as he puts it?
To be honest, I’m not terribly sympathetic for those people in those firms. When you started law school, you heard the stories. Especially nowadays with the blogs, the information is out there, everybody knows how bad it is. Everybody knows what the rules are, and you also know the salary and the pay scale. It’s all online….
To voluntarily go and do that, it’s hard to be sympathetic.
This is not an entirely theoretical discussion for Grisham. He told us that his son is set to graduate from Ole Miss this spring:
He turned down a big firm job. He doesn’t have a job; he’s looking now. He’s looking at a public defender’s office, maybe legal aid…. I’m very proud of that.
Grisham emphasizes that he didn’t force his son into any particular decision, but he admits:
You can imagine, growing up in our household, he didn’t hear a lot of positive things about big firms.
And it’s not like Grisham blindly believes in the humble ideal of the small town, “hang-a-shingle” lawyer. In The Associate, Kyle’s dad serves the role of the local generalist lawyer. Grisham points out that on that end of the scale — the end that Grisham himself experienced when he was a practicing attorney — lack of money is a constant pressure:
In a small town, you got way too many lawyers and not enough work to keep anybody happy. There’s a lot of competition and not a lot of enjoyment…. I wonder, who is happy practicing law?
Although Grisham can see the pitfalls of being a practicing attorney, he also understands where to find excitement and interest in the profession:
Most lawyers are honest hardworking people. People who don’t take risks, who do work that is pretty mundane…. You don’t want to read about those people.
You want to read about Marc Dreier. That’s what people want to read about. And, sadly enough, there is enough of that in reality to make it believable…. I’m clipping all the stories I can find about Dreier and Madoff. That’s the good stuff.
The protagonist of The Associate is a Yale Law School graduate who wanted to do public interest work before he got sucked into the firm. Kyle is often contrasted with a fellow associate who is a classic Harvard Law gunner. Surely matching those schools with those characters wasn’t an accident. But listen to how Grisham explained the choice:
I wrote the first 100 pages of the book having it set at Princeton. One night I was doing some research and I realized that there was no law school at Princeton. Then I went to Brown…. no law school at Brown.
Then I went to Cornell, but I flipped open a copy of The Broker and saw that the first characters you meet went to Cornell. I used Harvard for The Firm and I didn’t want to set the law school at Columbia or some place in the city. I had a scene on a train [as Kyle travels from school to Scully & Pershing] that I really wanted to keep, so I ended up in New Haven….
I was a sick puppy when I realized there was no law school at Princeton.
Nice. John Grisham is as responsible as anybody for shaping the popular understanding of what “being a lawyer” means. And, as it turns out, he really doesn’t care where you went to school. Think about that the next time U.S. News tells you what law school to attend.