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The Street Lawyer

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In The Street Lawyer, John Grisham has gone from one end of the legal world hierarchy to the other. Depending on your value system, Grisham deals with either the lower end of the legal ladder or the higher end. The answer depends on whether you are socially or economically oriented.

In The Partner, his last novel, the main character was motivated primarily by money as he put his former law partners through the ringer by making off with funds intended for them and a client. The greed motif was apparent throughout the book, in stark contrast to the theme of The Street Lawyer.

Grisham’s newest novel starts with a bang, quite literally. Michael Brock gets off the elevator at his Washington megafirm to find himself minutes later held hostage in the firm’s conference room by a demented street person named simply, "Mister." Over the course of several hours he watches the man, and the seeds of a new perspective on life are planted.

The hostage experience comes to an abrupt end as Mister is shot by the police. Michael is so close to Mister at the time that he was covered with blood and initially thought he had been shot as well. When he recovered from the shock, his world was never the same.

The experience led to a personal reevaluation of his position as an associate on the fast track to partnership in a firm at the top of the legal economic ladder. The partners generally netted salary and benefits in the $1 million range each year. Michael was married to a woman from a wealthy family, and she was in medical school and headed for a lucrative practice as a surgeon. The financial future was bright, and Michael could have spent the rest of his working days assisting corporate clients with antitrust litigation.

His experience with Mister, however, caused him to wonder about homelessness and those who live a life moving from shelter to shelter and meal to meal. He visited a legal clinic in the heart of Washington to find out more about Mister’s background, only to learn that his view of what a career in the law should be was changing. In the process, he discovered that his law firm may have had something to do with the circumstances that led Mister to take him hostage.

Curiously, Michael seems to downshift into an aimlessness on one level while finding a certainty of purpose on another. He becomes a poverty or "street" lawyer and develops a sense that he has found his place in the universe. The meaning of life is fulfilled as he loses his wife, gives up his job and places his law license in jeopardy by stealing a crucial file from his former law firm.

He finds satisfaction and a degree of contentment in the soup kitchens feeding the homeless and working with a free legal clinic to help the homeless obtain government and other assistance. Where, you might ask, is the breathtaking suspense, the mystery and the sheer delight often found in a Grisham novel? Has Grisham sold out entertainment to become one of those writers who seeks to impose social awareness and a collective conscience on America?

Not exactly. Fortunately, Grisham finds the fine line between preaching a cause and weaving real life issues into an entertaining story. Homelessness is a constant part of the fabric of the novel but it provides a platform for intrigue. Michael’s former firm handled the eviction of a large number of homeless persons during the dead of winter. A consequence of the eviction was the death of woman and her children who sought shelter from a snow storm in their car. Their asphyxiation, caused by the car’s exhaust pipe being buried in the snow, became a cause celebre and the trigger point for advocates of the homeless.

Michael steals the firm’s file on the eviction, and that theft unlocks a chain of events that is bizarre but plausible. He uses the file to enable Mordecai Green, head of the free legal clinic, to file a lawsuit against the law firm and one of its clients. The law firm, however, is way ahead of him and has him arrested for theft of the file. It also lodges charges with the bar association calculated to have him disbarred.

The interaction between Michael, Mordecai and the homeless forms the heart of the novel, and the book becomes something greater than pure entertainment. Grisham intends that the reader consider the plight of the homeless and attempts to leave behind an understanding of the degree of despair and futility found in life on the street. His handling of the issue is not single-mindedly one-sided, and he leaves room for those who consider some of the homelessness problems to be self-inflicted to be vindicated as well.

In the final analysis, the novel is good, if not great. It does not take much time to read, and one gets the sense that it did not take a lot of time to write. Without being deep, the novel does carry with it an impact beyond being a good story. It does lead the reader to think without forcing conclusions, and it brings into stark contrast the motives, means and perspectives of the large law firm with those of the legal clinic lawyer. Who wins—the megafirm or the street lawyer? It depends on your values, so you draw the conclusion. Regardless, the book shows that the practice of law is not a one-way street. More than likely, there is some street lawyer in all of us.

Journal Date: 
Monday, June 1, 1998

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