I imagine John Grisham, the best-selling author of plot-driven legal thrillers, channel surfing late one night on his 100-plus-acre farm in Oxford, Mississippi, and settling on an episode of "Better Call Saul." The author of books selling 275 million worldwide must have felt a pang of regret on seeing Saul. "I need to create a street lawyer," he said aloud. The result was his latest book, "Rogue Lawyer," recently published by Doubleday.
Grisham has now declared that he, too, wants to play at legal noir. Enter Sebastian Rudd, a criminal defense lawyer practicing law out of the back of an armored van, accompanied by a driver/confidante/bodyguard nicknamed "Partner."
If this sounds familiar, it is: This is a hunkered-down version, if such a thing is possible, of Michael Connelly's limousine lawyer, Mickey Haller. Amusingly, Rudd, in some of his rare downtime, actually reads Connelly. It is a small, small world after all.
Rudd represents folks with whom we have a love-hate relationship: drug dealers, sex traffickers, killers. I say love-hate because we so love to hate these folks. I suspect it is because we envy their lack of restraint.
Criminal defense lawyers play super ego to our collective id. We're all killers at heart. Bringing a "bad" man to justice satisfies because we don't want to be mocked: no one should be permitted to get away with what we prevent ourselves from doing, otherwise our self-control, civilization itself, is mocked.
The problem with Rudd is that he is a rich man's idea of a rogue. Rudd never really worries about a fee. When he agrees to represent a kick-boxer in whose career he had himself invested, Rudd, a witness to the crime charged, does so without a fee. Without much grumbling, he advances $30,000 for a jury consultant, $20,000 for a forensic psychiatrist and another $20,000 in costs of one sort or another. The money simply falls out of the sky. Rudd is a rogue without the hustle.
Saul Goodman remains the most convincing depiction of a street lawyer I've seen in fiction. The AMC series, starring Bob Odenkirk, does a better job of showing how tawdry the practice of law can be for the fee-hustling set, those lawyers without institutional clients, who live client-to-client and hope, usually in vain, that the next phone call might just be the one that pays a fee sufficient to satisfy the creditors sniffing forever and always in the background.
Connelly, a former crime reporter and not a lawyer, does a decent job portraying the street's grit, but he, too, writes like a man paid a comfortable advance. No matter how desperate Haller's finances, a deus ex machina client always appears, armed with a fat retainer, or a miracle fee. Most lawyers I know don't live such charmed lives.
We working-stiff lawyers, those of us who truck, barter and trade for fees on the law's killing fields, don't always have the time or inclination to behold the exploits of fictional lawyers. What can be more startling, more surprising, and, indeed, more disturbing than the real-life dramas we call work?
But the public at large loves legal thrillers, even if it professes disdain for lawyers. I read them and watch them, looking for an honest account of the life I lead. I've yet to see one that rings entirely true.
So here's the challenge to Grisham. If you really want to see how the law's dark arts are practiced, c'mon up to New Haven for a week or so. I'll give you room, board and the ability to pal around for a week or so with a lawyer who grinds away in despair's dark corners without miraculous cash drops or deep pockets.
A street lawyer's life is one of quiet desperation, you see. Perhaps that's not good fiction, but I suspect it could be. Or perhaps the consumers of legal thrillers merely want entertainment, and not the truth. •