Grisham draws on legal chops

Yale Law School Dean Robert Post, right, smiles as bestselling author John Grisham speaks at the Law School auditorium on Monday.
Yale Law School Dean Robert Post, right, smiles as bestselling author John Grisham speaks at the Law School auditorium on Monday. Photo by Juliana Hanle.

The practice of law wears down man’s ethics, Rudy Baylor warned an audience of about 100 law students.

Baylor, a newly licensed lawyer, is the protagonist of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1996 adaptation of John Grisham’s “The Rainmaker,” which was screened Monday afternoon at the Law School auditorium, followed by a discussion with the bestselling author.

At the close of the movie, which depicts a young man’s induction to the profession, Baylor decides to end his career and abscond with the film’s leading lady. Grisham, a lawyer by profession, said his heroes often “escape” the competitive world of law.

“I only practiced law for 10 years, and after doing it for five years in a small town with a lot of competition and ambulance-chasing, I didn’t like it at all,” Grisham said in the discussion. He acknowledged that his character’s liberation from that trade paralleled his own.

Grisham said most of his 23 novels “go back to something that really, really happened.” The idea for “The Rainmaker,” he explained, came to him as a third-year law student while enrolled in a class known as “geezer law,” officially called “Legal Problems for the Elderly.”

The movie, which Grisham called the most faithful of the eight film adaptations of his books, weaves the personal and legal stories of an elderly woman writing up her will, a young abused wife and a man dying of leukemia whose health insurance company refuses to pay for an operation. Baylor ends up challenging the giant insurance company and its legion of legal consultants in a battle to avenge the man’s death.

Grisham said he faced similar courtroom situations.

“They always had 14 lawyers lined up, and I was always outgunned,” he said. “But I always thought I was right.”

When the insurance company’s defense lawyer wound up his closing argument with the threat that if the jury finds the company guilty “it will pave the way for government -controlled health coverage,” the law students laughed and cheered. During the discussion, Grisham admitted that despite his active imagination he can’t scratch the surface to what the insurance companies have done.

Grisham said Coppola wanted his constant involvement in the process, despite ignoring the author’s attempt at a screenplay. Coppola’s exacting standards and his compulsive editing delayed the release of “The Rainmaker” until a week before that of James Cameron’s epic “Titanic.” Due to this untimely opening and despite critical acclaim, “The Rainmaker,” a $50 million film, did not make money until this past year.

In addition to his works of fiction, Grisham said he wrote a piece of investigative journalism, titled “The Innocent Man.” He said it took three times as long as one of his novels between all the fact-checking and research; the project made him realize that non-fiction “is just too much work.”

“I was fairly certain before I wrote the first word that I was going to get sued, and I did,” he added, though he did not volunteer an explanation.

In “The Rainmaker,” Baylor’s integrity shines in contrast to the morals of the lawyerly scum he faces in the courtroom.

“Sometimes you need a good propaganda session to remind you why some of the day-to-day more boring aspects are worth it,” said Josiah Pertz LAW ’12, who watched the film.

Many students said they attended the event because of their familiarity with Grisham’s fiction.

Two Brazilian law students, Diego Arguelhes LAW ’13 and Marcelo Lennertz LAW ’10, said the influence of legal fiction like Grisham’s is so powerful in Brazil that even before coming to Yale they were more familiar with the American legal system than that of their home country.

Correction: April 6, 2010

An earlier version of this article misstated the director of the 1997 film “Titanic.” The film was directed by James Cameron, not Steven Spielberg. Also, the role of Danny DeVito in the film was misidentified. He played a legal researcher who assisted Rudy Baylor, not the lead defense attorney. Finally, Josiah Pertz LAW ’12 was misquoted. He said: “Sometimes you need a good propaganda session to remind you why some of the day-to-day more boring aspects are worth it.”

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