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The Associate
By John Grisham

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The Associate

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The Associate
By John Grisham
Random House Large Print, 2009, 512 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7393-2823-1
Genre: Legal Thriller

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - June 22, 2009

People ask: How do you feel when you hear that ten lawyers drowned. They answer: It's a good start.

This joke could have been written by John Grisham whose best novels focus on the diabolical and unethical intrigues of large corrupt legal firms who take unfair advantage of people we come to like as we read his tale.

The associate Kyle McAvoy is the typical likable Grisham protagonist. He is in his early twenties, a bright aspiring lawyer, in his final year at Yale Law School, the editor of the Yale Law Journal, with the admirable goal of engaging in public service legal work for at least a couple of years after graduation, to help people who are financially strapped and unable to afford to hire a lawyer. He is facing the prospect of a brilliant future. But someone appears with a slight foreign accent, who calls himself Bennie, who has other plans for him. Bennie, or more precisely the people he works for, decides to use Kyle as a pawn, to aid them in winning a legal case involving hundreds of millions of dollars.

During his college years, in the midst of a drunken orgy, Kyle became involved in what may have been a rape. But he and we, the readers, wonder, was it a rape? Was he involved? And if so, how? We are drawn into the drama with these and other tantalizing and interesting questions.

Bennie blackmails Kyle, against his and his father's will, into joining one of two of the largest legal firms in the world. Kyle must illegally and unethically hand Bennie all the documents he desires. Kyle does not know who are Bennie's employers and their goal?

Bennie's coconspirators follow Kyle every minute. His apartment, telephone and computer are monitored by Bennie's team. Can Kyle escape the surveillance? Can he defeat Bennie and his unknown associates? Will Bennie publicize that Kyle was involved in a rape and destroy his future as a lawyer and land him in jail?

The drama introduces us to many interesting characters. There is a murder, of course. Kyle falls in love. All of this makes for a delightful read without the additional tale of how the legal firm functions. But, it is here that Grisham excels.

Grisham describes the ideal law firm as being "the cornerstone of democracy and the front lines for so many social conflicts." But the machinations of the world's largest law firm, the firm that Kyle is forced to join, are staggering and in no way similar to this ideal. The firm bills its clients $200 an hour for work that Kyle performs before he passes the Bar exam, and $400 an hour after he passes. He is taught by the firm how to lie about the hours spent and pad his bills. He and a senior partner who bills $800 an hour, for example, have a social lunch at an expensive restaurant unrelated to any case the firm is handling, and then bill a client for the meal and the two hours they spent eating. They are stealing $2,400 from the firm's client for the two hours plus a couple of hundred dollars for the meal and two bottle of expensive wine.

The law firm insists that its lawyers bill as many hours as possible. Some of the lawyers do not go home and sleep at their desk. The lawyers work close to 80 hours a week at the office and an associate occasionally hits a hundred hours. As a result, firm lawyers have a 72 percent divorce rate.

Reading Grisham's novel one wonders whether the atrocious legal system that he portrays is widespread, and, if so, should our country somehow try to reduce litigation. Lawyers did not exist in the early Judeo-Christian culture or among most ancient societies. If people had a dispute, they were expected to argue their own case without help of an uninvolved paid paladin.

Many ancient societies turned to God to resolve litigation. If a woman was suspected of adultery she was tossed into water. If she survived, then "obviously" God was declaring her innocent. This is barbaric; but is it worse than the legal system that Grisham portrays?

Grisham's new novel has two problems. First, the theme of the overbearing large law firm is the same theme of his earlier works. If someone else wrote his first books, even the law firm he portrays would have been unable to defend him against the charge of plagiarism. Second, as usual Grisham does not end his mystery well. Leaving the resolution of a single issue obscure is fine; it provokes thought and the reader can write his or her own ending. However to leave the resolution of every single issue unresolved is nothing less than writing half a novel; it is not thought provoking; it is annoying.

This book was reviewed by some 438 people on Amazon.Com as of June 19, 2009; 252 did not like the novel, 98 liked it somewhat, and only 88 enjoyed it. There were similar results in Barnes & Nobles.Com's 392 reviews. Virtually all the reviewers disliked the book's ending.

Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of a series of books on Maimonides, a twelfth century philosopher, and a series of books on Targum Onkelos, the earliest existing translation of the Hebrew Bible. Both are published by Gefen Publishing House.

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