Saturday, April 25, 2009

John Grisham: The Associate

Kyle McAvoy is the top law student at Yale at the beginning of John Grisham’s new book, The Associate. As he is ready to graduate, an unpleasant episode from his drunken undergraduate years surfaces. Although Kyle’s involvement was more embarrassing than criminal, he would like to keep it buried.

So Kyle succumbs to blackmail and accepts a job in New York at the world’s largest law firm. His mission? To worm his way onto the biggest lawsuit of the times, and steal privileged client information.

The background story is of Kyle and other young associates grinding through long hours of tedium, generating unconscionable hours of billable time, at outrageously high salaries. Boredom and burnout are at astronomical levels among associate lawyers trying to make partner. But Grisham does not make the job of Partner at a large law firm sound much better. I think we finally see why he writes novels instead of practicing law.

The foreground story is much more exciting. Can Kyle find a way out of his predicament? If he does what the bad guys want, can he avoid getting caught, disbarred, and maybe sent to prison? If he refuses, will he be disgraced, disbarred, and become an embarrassment to his family? Or is there a third way?

The first two choices would lead to short boring books. So naturally there is a third way. Kyle is feeling his way through the minefields. We learn his partial plans as fast as he thinks of them. He doesn’t know where his ideas will lead, and neither do we. But the longer he can avoid a full ethical breach, the longer he can keep his options open.

As I read The Associate I found myself thinking that full and open honesty up front sounds like the path of least resistance in the long run. But by not taking that route, Kyle McAvoy took us for a good ride. Grisham still delivers a great story, and this one is above his average.

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