Never shy about shedding light on injustice and unethical behavior, John Grisham sinks his teeth into a juicy target in his latest novel: privately owned, for-profit law schools.
Three students at the fictional Foggy Bottom Law School in Washington, D.C., drowning in debt and nearing graduation with little hope of passing the bar or landing a job, drop out in disgust and embark on a foolhardy revenge scheme against the Wall Street kingpin who controls Foggy Bottom and other diploma mills.
Grisham details the dismal mediocrity and hopelessness engulfing the school and its students. Mirroring real-life counterparts, students stumble out of Foggy Bottom into years of suffocating loan payments and dead-end careers.
Addled by inflated grades, they lack the rigor and knowledge to land the high-paying big firm jobs touted in brochures and on campus tours.
Foggy Bottom grads pass the bar exam at a paltry rate of 56%. The dean spends his days cowering in his top-floor office, where he hides from students so he can avoid complaints and uncomfortable questions.
Grisham gives his main characters — Todd, Mark, and Zola — extra motivation in their quixotic quest to turn the tables on the wonderfully-named law school empire-builder Hinds Rackley.
A bipolar classmate named Gordy, who has obsessively catalogued Rackley’s shadowy investments, introduces the trio to a lengthy trail of the Foggy Bottom investor’s opportunistic business practices. Soon after, Gordy drowns himself in the Potomac River.
With that, Grisham sets in motion a scam both ridiculous and sublime: Gordy’s three classmates start practicing law without a law license. They vow to retire their staggering debt by going off the grid in plain sight.
Operating from makeshift studio apartments above, yes, The Rooster Bar of the title, Todd, Mark and Zola troll D.C. courtrooms.
Their sham firm is cash-only and the would-be lawyers evade taxes while hoping for a major liability score.
Initial successes net a combined $50,000. Soon enough, suspicions surface from various corners: prospective clients, rival lawyers, a curious prosecutor, and the local bar (legal, not Rooster).
One veteran ambulance-chaser takes note after one of his intermediaries nearly loses a client to Zola.
Grisham writes: “Frank Jepperson sat behind his oversized desk and stared at Zola’s business card. As a veteran of the personal injury wars in the District, he was quite familiar with her game. In his earlier years, he too had toiled in the vineyards of the city’s hospitals, stalking potential clients. He knew all the tricks. He paid kickbacks to tow truck drivers who sent clients his way. Each morning he reviewed police reports looking for the most promising car wrecks …”
Of course, only so much willing disbelief can be conjured. Grisham, dozens of bestsellers into his career, recognizes the risk and avoids going full-tilt far-fetched.
And, once again, the author pulls off one of his neatest tricks, sprinkling in just enough missteps and oversights to create high-stakes, gut-churning quandaries for his underdog crew. Echoing “The Firm” and other Clinton-era paperback favorites, “The Rooster Bar” runs on black-hatted villains in pursuit of decidedly gray-hatted upstarts you will embrace even as they commit more than 1,100 felonies. Yes, you read that correctly.
A subplot involving Zola’s Senegalese parents and brother — they’re illegal immigrants but Zola is not — provides Grisham with an exotic and corruption-filled setting as the fake lawyers scramble to outlast the FBI and others. For the finale, Grisham serves up a pitch-perfect cocktail of escapism and derring-do that will leave readers (apologies) crowing for more.