Grisham's Law

By Ferranti, Jennifer | The Saturday Evening Post, March/April 1997 | Go to article overview

Grisham's Law


Ferranti, Jennifer, The Saturday Evening Post


America's most successful attorney-turned-author builds a case for fast-action plots that support a slow-moving lifestyle with lots of Little League games and close shaves only on Sunday.

It looked like a John Grisham novel come to life. A small county courtroom in Brookhaven, Mississippi-population 10,600. A grieving widow pitted against a megabucks corporation in a wrongful death suit. And a handsome country lawyer oozing with humility, charm, and an unshakable determination to win, despite the odds. But in this case, the attorney with the disarming southern drawl was no John Grisham character. It was superauthor John Grisham himself.

After a five-year hiatus, Grisham recently returned to court to try the case of King v. Illinois Central Railroad. The celebrity attorney represented the family of John Wayne King, a railroad brakeman killed when pinned between two cars in 1991.

Grisham accepted the case shortly before his book The Firm hit the bestseller's list, prompting the small-town litigator to trade in his legal briefs for writing legal thrillers full-time. However, the phenomenal success that followed did not deter Grisham from fulfilling his earlier obligations-not even when preparing for this trial meant delaying publication of his next novel.

"I haven't done this in a long time, and I've got the jitters," Grisham sheepishly admitted to the potential jurors on opening day. He then went on to build his case step by step, arguing as vigorously and convincingly as any of his fictional characters might. After three days of testimony, the six-man, six-woman jury awarded Grisham's client $683,500 in damages-a large settlement for this neck of the woods.

"I'm tickled to death," Grisham remarked afterward. "It's the biggest verdict I've ever gotten." At least in the courtroom. Bookstores and movie theaters are another matter.

Grisham's seven bestsellers-A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief The Client, The Chamber The Rainmaker, and The Runaway Juryhave sold more than 60 million copies in 31 languages. Five of his books have been made into movies, for which box-office sales now exceed $750 million. His other two books will soon be movies, too: Grisham is currently cowriting the screenplay for The Rainmaker with director Francis Ford Coppola, and he just sold the movie rights to The Runaway Jury for a record $8 million. Furthermore, The Gingerbread Man, an original screenplay Grisham wrote just before he hit the bestseller's list, is now in production.

All of this translates into a megadose of fame, as well as quite a fortune. Forbes magazine ranks Grisham as one of the wealthiest entertainers in the world. Last year alone he earned $43 million.

Humble Beginnings

Nevertheless, Grisham contends he never set out to be a writer, no less arguably the most commercially successful author in history.

After earning his law degree from the University of Mississippi, Grisham set up a modest country practice in Southaven, Mississippi, a community of 25,000 just across the state line from Memphis, Tennessee.

Practicing law for nearly ten years, Grisham specialized in criminal defense and personal-injury litigation. However, he admits, "My law career was not very fulfilling. I was a street lawyer, one of a thousand in a profession that was and is terribly overcrowded. Competition was fierce; ethics [were] often compromised; and I could never bring myself to advertise."

Then, one day at the De Soto County courthouse, Grisham listened to the riveting testimony of a 12-yearold rape victim. The little girl's story inspired Grisham. For the next three years, he rose every day at 5:00 a.m. to write A Time to Kill, a novel about the retribution a black father seeks when his daughter is raped by a band of rednecks in a small southern town. Grisham wrote that first book on a computer squeezed between the washer and dryer in the laundry room of his two-bedroom brick house, scribbling down the ideas that occurred to him throughout the day during court recesses. …

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