The Rooster Bar
By John Grisham
368 pp. $28.95
Being a lawyer has ruined legal fiction for me. So much of what I see and read is so far from reality it's hard for me not to yell out, "No, it doesn't work like that!" From Ally McBeal to How to Get Away with Murder and, of course, Law & Order - being a lawyer ruined them all. So I was braced to by disappointed by John Grisham's latest novel, which centers on four law students at a third-tier, for-profit law school who find themselves on the losing end of a scam.
Well, mea culpa, Mr. Grisham. I stand corrected. This is a legal book that lawyers can read. (It's also pretty great for non-lawyers.) Not only is it free of major legal gaffes, it also addresses a crucial problem within the legal profession: the deceptive practices of for-profit law schools.
Grisham's three characters - Mark, Todd, and Zola - have eagerly entered the Foggy Bottom Law School with hopes of high-paying careers after graduation, dreams encouraged by the school's marketing material and loan officers. Alas, by their third year, they have learned the hard truth: The law is an elitist profession, and it is practically impossible for the students to get any job upon graduation. Instead, students from little-known, albeit expensive, schools find themselves saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, no prospects, and little chance of ever repaying their loans.
In Grisham's smartly told tale, a tragedy strikes, and Mark, Todd, and Zola decide to begin on a path that might seem improbable but that was scarily plausible to me: They drop out of school, head to D.C. Municipal Court, and, without licenses, start hustling clients. They assume false names and set up as many legal scams as possible and make as much money as fast as they can. I'm sorry to say I believe that in the hectic world of traffic and municipal courts, someone could easily pretend to be a lawyer. He or she would be caught eventually but could get away with it for a while.
Moreover, The Rooster Bar highlights the appalling way many for-profit law schools ruin many students. The practice of law is elitist, and the high-paying jobs go to students with the best grades from the best law schools - all of which are nonprofit schools at major universities. But some schools exist merely to make money, enrolling as many students as possible, despite the dismal job prospects. Bravo to Grisham for using his star power to spotlight an all-too-real problem in this gratifying and all-too-real book.
Carrie Dunsmore is a lawyer who lives in the Boston area. This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.