The Rooster Bar by John Grisham (Dell, 2018)
Three law students, Todd Lucero, Mark Frazier, and Zola Maal, are about to start their final semester of the not so prestigious Foggy Bottom Law School in Washington, D.C. However, the shocking suicide of their friend, Gordy, who has been driven to a very dark place by discoveries that he has uncovered during an investigation of Foggy Bottom, leads the trio away from the legal library and into a somewhat amusing, but scandalous, adventure that only a writer of John Grisham’s brilliance could create.
There are lots of bad lawyer jokes out there, and quite a few folks have little good to say about attorneys, but Todd, Mark, and Zola take incompetence to a new level when they decide to cut out of Foggy Bottom before their senior year has ended, and hang out their shingle before graduating or taking the bar. They set up shop in a dive called The Rooster Bar, with their housing and offices set up in a cramped space above the bar. Mark and Todd work off their rent by tending to customers, while Zola dedicates her time to chasing ambulances and wandering hospital corridors, trying to drum up business, with no success.
Mark and Todd patrol the halls of the local courthouse, taking on cases of indigents and criminals who lack representation, and begin to argue real cases with some success. They know that they are breaking the law by impersonating qualified barristers, but heck, it’s only a misdemeanor for which no one ever goes to jail, so what do they really have to lose?
However, Mark, Todd, and Zola have another huge problem. Foggy Bottom is a school that is a for profit law institution and is the brainchild of a slick billionaire, Hinds Rackley, who owns at least eight of these types of schools. Foggy Bottom, and its sister schools, accept the law students whom no other schools would consider; the kids who had bottom of the barrel grades in college, poor scores on the LSATs, and very little money to pay for their educations. The school promises lucrative jobs in the legal profession for all of its graduates, while handing out thousands of dollars to students who don’t understand the depth of debt into which they are getting while “sort of” studying for a degree that will prove to be worthless ultimately. Who is going to hire anyone from Foggy Bottom Law School if they can hire someone from Georgetown or George Washington University?
Once their absence from classes is duly noted by the administrators at Foggy Bottom, the trio is besieged with queries from their financial advisors at the school as to what are their intentions of paying back the $250,000 of debt that each of them owes. Mark responds to one of the queries in this manner: Dear Ms. Nash: In my last e-mail I politely asked you to leave me alone because I’m in therapy and my therapist really doesn’t like you. He says that because my loans are so enormous and my debt so suffocating I could be on the brink of a serious emotional breakdown. He says I’m fragile. Please, please go away or I’ll have no choice but to ask my therapist to contact your lawyer, Sincerely, Mark Frazier. (p.228)
Todd’s response to his legal advisor reads: Dear SS Senior Loan Counselor Wagner: When you feel the trapdoor closing, you think of ways to get out. Desperate ways, one of which is to quit school and go hide. Another is to face default head-on and get it over with. So I go into default? What’s the big deal? As I’m sure you know, over a million students defaulted last year. They all got sued but not a single one was executed. So, you can sue me but you can’t kill me, right? You can ruin my credit for the rest of my life, but here’s the deal: after dealing with you and your company and the law school, I’m done with debt. Finished forever. I will live the rest of my life debt-free. Your friend, Todd Lucero (p.229)
And Zola’s reply to her advisor states: Dear Ms. Carver: I’m afraid there’s nothing to report. I can’t buy a job. I’ll keep interviewing until I graduate and then interview some more. If my bad luck continues, I’ll probably get a job with an accounting firm. If so, I’ll let you know immediately, All best, Zola Maal (p.230)
While these types of responses are peppered throughout the novel, and are quite humorous, Mark, Todd, and Zola decide to take an even greater risk as the need to bring in some real cash and beat the system grabs hold of them. They get involved in a class action suit that has the possibility of being extremely lucrative, if they are lucky.
As Dirty Harry once crowed, “I know what you’re thinking. . . Did he shoot six times? Well, I’ll tell you, with all of the action, I’ve lost count. So the question you have to ask yourself is, ’Do you feel lucky?’” And that is the ultimate question that Mark, Todd, and Zola must answer as they try to outrace the clock. Just how lucky are they?
The most delightful aspect of The Rooster Bar is that the reader is aware that what the three students are doing is illegal and very naughty. And yet, we are rooting for them through it all. The bad guys are the good guys to us and we cheer for them at each twist of the plot. Perhaps it is because we know that so many young people today graduate from school in debt that they can never get out of, debt that they signed on for never thinking that their day of reckoning will come. Perhaps we cheer for Zola because she is the daughter of parents who came to the US illegally and are fighting extradition to Senegal, a country they haven’t seen in decades. Perhaps it is because so many of us think that justice is a matter of who can pay the best lawyers, and not what is fair and right. Whatever the reason, Grisham’s The Rooster Bar is a fun read that I recommend for a great reading experience.