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The Litigators

John Grisham


  The law firm of Finley & Figg referred to itself as a “boutique firm.” This misnomer was inserted as often as possible into routine conversations, and it even appeared in print in some of the various schemes hatched by the partners to solicit business. When used properly, it implied that Finley & Figg was something above your average two-bit operation. Boutique, as in small, gifted, and expert in one specialized area. Boutique, as in pretty cool and chic, right down to the Frenchness of the word itself. Boutique, as in thoroughly happy to be small, selective, and prosperous.

  Except for its size, it was none of these things. Finley & Figg’s scam was hustling injury cases, a daily grind that required little skill or creativity and would never be considered cool or sexy. Profits were as elusive as status. The firm was small because it couldn’t afford to grow. It was selective only because no one wanted to work there, including the two men who owned it. Even its location suggested a monotonous life out in the bush leagues. With a Vietnamese massage parlor to its left and a lawn mower repair shop to its right, it was clear at a casual glance that Finley & Figg was not prospering. There was another boutique firm directly across the street—hated rivals—and more lawyers around the corner. In fact, the neighborhood was teeming with lawyers, some working alone, others in small firms, others still in versions of their own little boutiques.

  F&F’s address was on Preston Avenue, a busy street filled with old bungalows now converted and used for all manner of commercial activity. There was retail (liquor, cleaners, massages) and professional (legal, dental, lawn mower repair) and culinary (enchiladas, baklava, and pizza to go). Oscar Finley had won the building in a lawsuit twenty years earlier. What the address lacked in prestige it sort of made up for in location. Two doors away was the intersection of Preston, Beech, and Thirty-eighth, a chaotic convergence of asphalt and traffic that guaranteed at least one good car wreck a week, and often more. F&F’s annual overhead was covered by collisions that happened less than one hundred yards away. Other law firms, boutique and otherwise, were often prowling the area in hopes of finding an available, cheap bungalow from which their hungry lawyers could hear the actual squeal of tires and crunching of metal.

  With only two attorneys/partners, it was of course mandatory that one be declared the senior and the other the junior. The senior partner was Oscar Finley, age sixty-two, a thirty-year survivor of the bare-knuckle brand of law found on the tough streets of southwest Chicago. Oscar had once been a beat cop but got himself terminated for cracking skulls. He almost went to jail but instead had an awakening and went to college, then law school. When no firms would hire him, he hung out his own little shingle and started suing anyone who came near. Thirty-two years later, he found it hard to believe that for thirty-two years he’d wasted his career suing for past-due accounts receivable, fender benders, slip-and-falls, and quickie divorces. He was still married to his first wife, a terrifying woman he wanted to sue every day for his own divorce. But he couldn’t afford it. After thirty-two years of lawyering, Oscar Finley couldn’t afford much of anything.

  His junior partner—and Oscar was prone to say things like, “I’ll get my junior partner to handle it,” when trying to impress judges and other lawyers and especially prospective clients—was Wally Figg, age forty-five. Wally fancied himself a hardball litigator, and his blustery ads promised all kinds of aggressive behavior. “We Fight for Your Rights!” and “Insurance Companies Fear Us!” and “We Mean Business!” Such ads could be seen on park benches, city transit buses, cabs, high school football programs, even telephone poles, though this violated several ordinances. The ads were not seen in two crucial markets—television and billboards. Wally and Oscar were still fighting over these. Oscar refused to spend the money—both types were horribly expensive—and Wally was still scheming. His dream was to see his smiling face and slick head on television saying dreadful things about insurance companies while promising huge settlements to injured folks wise enough to call his toll-free number.

  But Oscar wouldn’t even pay for a billboard. Wally had one picked out. Six blocks from the office, at the corner of Beech and Thirty-second, high above the swarming traffic, on top of a four-story tenement house, there was the most perfect billboard in all of metropolitan Chicago. Currently hawking cheap lingerie (with a comely ad, Wally had to admit), the billboard had his name and face written all over it. But Oscar still refused.

  Wally’s law degree came from the prestigious University of Chicago School of Law. Oscar picked his up at a now-defunct place that once offered courses at night. Both took the bar exam three times. Wally had four divorces under his belt; Oscar could only dream. Wally wanted the big case, the big score with millions of dollars in fees. Oscar wanted only two things—divorce and retirement.

  How the two men came to be partners in a converted house on Preston Avenue was another story. How they survived without choking each other was a daily mystery.

  Their referee was Rochelle Gibson, a robust black woman with attitude and savvy earned on the streets from which she came. Ms. Gibson handled the front—the phone, the reception, the prospective clients arriving with hope and the disgruntled ones leaving in anger, the occasional typing (though her bosses had learned if they needed something typed, it was far simpler to do it themselves), the firm dog, and, most important, the constant bickering between Oscar and Wally.

  Years earlier, Ms. Gibson had been injured in a car wreck that was not her fault. She then compounded her troubles by hiring the law firm of Finley & Figg, though not by choice. Twenty-four hours after the crash, bombed on Percocet and laden with splints and plaster casts, Ms. Gibson had awakened to the grinning, fleshy face of Attorney Wallis Figg hovering over her hospital bed. He was wearing a set of aquamarine scrubs, had a stethoscope around his neck, and was doing a good job of impersonating a physician. Wally tricked her into signing a contract for legal representation, promised her the moon, sneaked out of the room as quietly as he’d sneaked in, then proceeded to butcher her case. She netted $40,000, which her husband drank and gambled away in a matter of weeks, which led to a divorce action filed by Oscar Finley. He also handled her bankruptcy. Ms. Gibson was not impressed with either lawyer and threatened to sue both for malpractice. This got their attention—they had been hit with similar lawsuits—and they worked hard to placate her. As her troubles multiplied, she became a fixture at the office, and with time the three became comfortable with one another.

  Finley & Figg was a tough place for secretaries. The pay was low, the clients were generally unpleasant, the other lawyers on the phone were rude, the hours were long, but the worst part was dealing with the two partners. Oscar and Wally had tried the mature route, but the older gals couldn’t handle the pressure. They had tried youth but got themselves sued for sexual harassment when Wally couldn’t keep his paws off a busty young thing. (They settled out of court for $50,000 and got their names in the newspaper.) Rochelle Gibson happened to be at the office one morning when the then-current secretary quit and stormed out. With the phone ringing and partners yelling, Ms. Gibson moved over to the front desk and calmed things down. Then she made a pot of coffee. She was back the next day, and the next. Eight years later, she was still running the place.

  Her two sons were in prison. Wally had been their lawyer, though in all fairness no one could have saved them. As teenagers, both boys kept Wally busy with their string of arrests on various drug charges. Their dealing got more involved, and Wally warned them repeatedly they were headed for prison, or death. He said the same to Ms. Gibson, who had little control over the boys and often prayed for prison. When their crack ring got busted, they were sent away for ten years. Wally got it reduced from twenty and received no gratitude from the boys. Ms. Gibson offered a t
earful thanks. Through all their troubles, Wally never charged her a fee for his representation.

  Over the years, there had been many tears in Ms. Gibson’s life, and they had often been shed in Wally’s office with the door locked. He gave advice and tried to help when possible, but his greatest role was that of a listener. And with Wally’s sloppy life, the tables could be turned quickly. When his last two marriages blew up, Ms. Gibson heard it all and offered encouragement. When his drinking picked up, she saw it clearly and was not afraid to confront him. Though they fought daily, their quarrels were always temporary and often contrived as a means of protecting turf.

  There were times at Finley & Figg when all three were snarling or sulking, and money was usually the cause. The market was simply overcrowded; there were too many lawyers loose on the streets.

  The last thing the firm needed was another one.


  David Zinc made it off the L train at the Quincy Station in downtown Chicago, and he managed to shuffle down the steps that led to Wells Street, but something was going wrong with his feet. They were getting heavier and heavier, his steps slower and slower. He stopped at the corner of Wells and Adams and actually looked at his shoes for a clue. Nothing, just the same standard black leather lace-ups worn by every male lawyer in the firm, and a couple of the females as well. His breathing was labored, and in spite of the chill he felt moisture in his armpits. He was thirty-one years old, certainly too young for a heart attack, and though he’d been exhausted for the past five years, he had learned to live with his fatigue. Or so he thought. He turned a corner and looked at the Trust Tower, a glistening phallic monument jutting one thousand feet upward into the clouds and fog. As he paused and looked up, his heart rate quickened and he felt nauseous. Bodies touched him as they jostled by. He crossed Adams in a pack and plodded on.

  The atrium of the Trust Tower was tall and open, with plenty of marble and glass and incomprehensible sculpture designed to inspire and provide warmth, when in reality it seemed cold and forbidding, at least to David. Six escalators crisscrossed each other and hauled hordes of weary warriors up to their cubicles and offices. David tried, but his feet would not carry him to an escalator. Instead, he sat on a leather bench beside a pile of large painted rocks and tried to understand what was happening to him. People rushed by, grim-faced, hollow-eyed, stressed-out already, and it was only 7:30 on this gloomy morning.

  A “snap” is certainly not a medical term. Experts use fancier language to describe the instant when a troubled person steps over the edge. Nonetheless, a snap is a real moment. It can happen in a split second, the result of a terribly traumatic event. Or it can be the final straw, the sad culmination of pressure that builds and builds until the mind and body must find a release. David Zinc’s snap was of the latter variety. After five years of savage labor with colleagues he loathed, something happened to David that morning as he sat by the painted rocks and watched the well-dressed zombies ride upward to yet another day of useless labor. He snapped.

  “Hey Dave. You going up?” someone was saying. It was Al, from antitrust.

  David managed to smile and nod and mumble, then he stood and followed Al for some reason. Al was a step ahead as they got onto an escalator, and he was talking about last night’s Blackhawks game. David kept nodding as they rose through the atrium. Below him and following behind were dozens of lonely figures in dark overcoats, other young lawyers rising, quiet and somber, much like pallbearers at a winter funeral. David and Al joined a group at a wall of elevators on the first level. As they waited, David listened to the hockey talk, but his head was spinning and he was nauseous again. They rushed onto an elevator and stood shoulder to shoulder with too many others. Silence. Al was quiet. No one spoke; no one made eye contact.

  David said to himself: “This is it—my last ride in this elevator. I swear.”

  The elevator rocked and hummed, then stopped at the eightieth floor, Rogan Rothberg territory. Three lawyers got off, three faces David had seen before but didn’t know by name, which was not unusual because the firm had six hundred lawyers on floors seventy through one hundred. Two more dark suits got off at eighty-four. As they continued to rise, David began to sweat, then to hyperventilate. His tiny office was on the ninety-third floor, and the closer he got, the more violently his heart pumped. More somber exits on ninety and ninety-one, and with each stop David felt weaker and weaker.

  Only three were left at ninety-three—David, Al, and a large woman who was called Lurch behind her back. The elevator stopped, a bell chimed pleasantly, the door opened silently, and Lurch stepped off. Al stepped off. David refused to move; in fact, he couldn’t move. Seconds passed. Al looked over his shoulder and said, “Hey, David, this is us. Come on.”

  No response from David, just the blank, hollow gaze of someone in another world. The door began to close, and Al jammed his briefcase in the opening. “David, you okay?” Al asked.

  “Sure,” David mumbled as he managed to move forward. The door slid open, the bell chimed again. He was out of the elevator, looking around nervously as if he’d never before seen the place. In fact, he’d left it only ten hours earlier.

  “You look pale,” Al said.

  David’s head was spinning. He heard Al’s voice but didn’t comprehend what he was saying. Lurch was a few feet away, staring, puzzled, as if watching a car wreck. The elevator pinged again, a different sound, and the door began to close. Al said something else, even reached out a hand as if to help. Suddenly David spun and his leaden feet came to life. He bolted for the elevator and made a diving reentry just as the door slammed shut. The last thing he heard from the outside was Al’s panicked voice.

  When the elevator began its descent, David Zinc started to laugh. The spinning and nausea were gone. The pressure on his chest vanished. He was doing it! He was leaving the sweatshop of Rogan Rothberg and saying farewell to a nightmare. He, David Zinc, of all the thousands of miserable associates and junior partners in the tall buildings of downtown Chicago, he and he alone had found the spine to walk away that gloomy morning. He sat on the floor in the empty elevator, watching with a wide grin as the floor numbers zipped downward in bright red digital numbers, and he fought to control his thoughts. The people: (1) his wife, a neglected woman who wanted to get pregnant but found it difficult because her husband was too tired for sex; (2) his father, a prominent judge who had basically forced him to go to law school, and not just anywhere but Harvard Law School because that’s where the judge had gone; (3) his grandfather, the family tyrant who’d built a mega firm from scratch in Kansas City and still put in ten hours a day at the age of eighty-two; and (4) Roy Barton, his supervising partner, his boss, a prickish crank who yelled and cursed throughout the day and was perhaps the most miserable person David Zinc had ever met. When he thought of Roy Barton, he laughed again.

  The elevator stopped at the eightieth floor, and two secretaries started to enter. They paused momentarily when confronted with David sitting in a corner, briefcase at his side. Carefully, they stepped over his legs and waited for the door to close. “Are you okay?” one asked. “Fine,” David answered. “And you?”

  There was no response. The secretaries stood rigid and quiet during the brief descent and hustled off at seventy-seven. When David was alone again, he was suddenly worried. What if they came after him? Al would no doubt go straight to Roy Barton and report that Zinc had cracked up. What would Barton do? There was a huge meeting at ten with an angry client, a big-shot CEO; in fact, as David would think about things later, the showdown was probably the tipping point that finally caused the Snap. Roy Barton was not only an abrasive prick but also a coward. He needed David Zinc and others to hide behind when the CEO marched in with a long list of valid complaints.

  Roy might send Security after him. Security was the usual contingent of aging uniformed door guards, but it was also an in-house spy ring that changed locks, videoed everything, moved in the shadows, and engaged in all manner of covert ac
tivities designed to keep the lawyers in line. David jumped to his feet, picked up his briefcase, and stared impatiently at the digital numbers blinking by. The elevator rocked gently as it fell through the center of the Trust Tower. When it stopped, David got off and darted to the escalators, which were still packed with sad folks moving silently upward. The descending escalators were unclogged, and David ran down one. Someone called out, “Hey, Dave, where are you going?” David smiled and waved in the general direction of the voice, as if everything was under control. He strode past the painted rocks and bizarre sculpture, and he eased his way through a glass door. He was outside, and the air that had seemed so wet and dreary moments earlier now held the promise of a new beginning.

  He took a deep breath and looked around. Gotta keep moving. He began walking down LaSalle Street, quickly, afraid to look over his shoulder. Don’t look suspicious. Be calm. This is now one of the most important days of your life, he told himself, so don’t blow it. He couldn’t go home because he was not ready for that confrontation. He couldn’t walk the streets because he would bump into someone he knew. Where could he hide for a while, think about things, clear his head, make a plan? He checked his watch, 7:51, the perfect time for breakfast. Down an alley he saw the red-and-green flashing neon sign of Abner’s, and as he grew closer, he couldn’t tell if it was a café or a bar. At the door he glanced over his shoulder, made sure Security was nowhere in sight, and entered the warm, dark world of Abner’s.

  It was a bar. The booths along the right were empty. The chairs were sitting upside down on the tables, waiting for someone to clean the floor. Abner was behind the long, well-polished wooden counter with a smirk on his face, as if to ask, “What are you doing here?”

  “Are you open?” David asked.

  “Was the door locked?” Abner shot back. He wore a white apron and was drying a beer mug. He had thick, hairy forearms, and in spite of his gruff manner he had the trusting face of a veteran bartender who’d heard it all before.

  “I guess not.” David walked slowly to the bar, glanced to his right, and at the far end saw a man who’d apparently passed out, still holding a drink.

  David removed his charcoal-gray overcoat and hung it on the back of a stool. He took a seat, looked at the rows of liquor bottles aligned in front of him, took in the mirrors and beer taps and dozens of glasses Abner had arranged perfectly, and when he was settled, he said, “What do you recommend before eight o’clock?” Abner looked at the man with his head on the counter and said, “How about coffee?”

  “I’ve already had that. Do you serve breakfast?”

  “Yep, it’s called a Bloody Mary.”

  “I’ll take one.”

  Rochelle Gibson lived in a subsidized apartment with her mother, one of her daughters, two of her grandchildren, varying combinations of nieces and nephews, and even an occasional cousin in need of shelter. To escape the chaos, she often fled to her workplace, though at times it was worse than home. She arrived at the office each day around 7:30, unlocked the place, fetched both newspapers from the porch, turned on the lights, adjusted the thermostat, made the coffee, and checked on AC, the firm dog. She hummed and sometimes sang softly as she went about her routine. Though she would never admit it to either of her bosses, she was quite proud to be a legal secretary, even in a place like Finley & Figg. When asked her job or profession, she was always quick to state “legal secretary.” Never just a garden-variety secretary, but a legal one. What she lacked in formal training she made up for in experience. Eight years in the middle of a busy street practice had taught her a lot of law and even more about lawyers.

  AC was a mutt who lived at the office because no one there was willing to take him home. He belonged to the three—Rochelle, Oscar, and Wally—in equal shares, though virtually all of the responsibilities of his care fell upon Rochelle. He was a runaway who’d chosen F&F as his home several years earlier. Throughout the day he slept on a small bed near Rochelle, and throughout the night he roamed the office, guarding the place. He was a passable watchdog whose bark had chased away burglars, vandals, and even several disgruntled clients.