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To mark our 30th anniversary, we’ve reached into our archives to highlight key events and players who made a difference since we made our debut. A version of the following article appeared in the March 25, 1991, edition…
John Grisham can’t quite account for the public’s growing appetite for legal thrillers — an appetite that has already propelled his book The Firm to The New York Times best-seller list, on the heels of Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and The Burden of Proof, and Philip Friedman’s Reasonable Doubt. “I don’t know what the fascination is,” he says. But Grisham’s not complaining. The trend has already enabled him to achieve one of his life goals — to stop working as a lawyer, after less than 10 years in solo practice in Mississippi. Even before The Firm went on sale a few weeks ago, foreign rights had been negotiated in 10 countries, film rights had been sold to Paramount Pictures, and the Literary Guild had made it a main selection. As a result, at age 36, Grisham is living the secret dream of many lawyers. He closed his law office last December and works at his farm near Oxford, Miss., where he lives with his wife and two children. He taps away at his next novel, relatively sure that he’ll never again have to face another deposition or slow-paying client. He indulges his passion for college baseball as a major fan of the Mississippi State Bulldogs. “Writing books is a whole lot more fun than being a lawyer,” says Grisham. “The legal profession is not all it’s cracked up to be, I found.” Grisham’s legal career, thankfully, did not impair his ability to write a clear and compelling sentence. If the dialogue is sometimes a bit wooden, well, so are lawyers sometimes. It is a tribute to Grisham that he has made the world of a firm specializing in tax law seem enthralling. Even Grisham doesn’t want readers to read too much into it. “It’s pure entertainment. I have no illusion that it’s anything serious. I don’t take myself real seriously.” Nonetheless, Grisham won’t disagree if you tell him that the book reflects some of his own negative feelings about the legal profession. “The profession could use a lot of cleaning up,” he says. Grisham never worked for a big firm like the one he wrote about. “But I was always on the receiving end of big firms. There was a lot of boring, intense-type work, constant pressure to bill, the fee-gouging, the infighting, the back-stabbing.” He went solo, but found that discouraging, too. “A lot of lawyers get tired of being David vs. Goliath. It’s hard to make money representing average people. There were some very lean times.” Grisham did a lot of criminal work, including a couple of murder cases. One gave him his most dispiriting look at the legal system — even though he won. He was defending a black man accused of shooting another black man, and a black friend advised him to pick a jury of 12 rednecks. “Most of those kind of people think it’s great when we kill each other,” his friend said, according to Grisham. Grisham did, and he won. The jury bought his argument that the shooting was in self-defense. Another experience Grisham had that left him hungry to leave lawyering was a seven-year stint in the Mississippi House of Representatives. Grisham left that post last year, too, when he turned to book writing full time. He had been writing as a hobby since his last year at Ole Miss law school in 1981. His next novel will also have a lawyerly theme, he says. “The genre is almost endless. The cases, the clients, the crazy things people do. There are some great stories to write about.” If The Firm is any indication, Grisham has quite a few good yarns left in him.
Update: John Grisham wasn’t yet a pop culture phenomenon when Tony Mauro interviewed him for our After Hours section. His first novel, A Time to Kill , had been published by a small press and was a moderate success. The Firm changed everything. It was one of the biggest best sellers of 1991. Later, Publishers Weekly would name him the best-selling author of the 1990s, with more than 60 million copies sold. Eight of his 21 books (including The Firm and A Time to Kill ) have been adapted into films. Still active in Democratic politics, the Charlottesville, Va.-based Grisham is a high-profile supporter of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. His latest legal thriller, The Appeal , was published in January.

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