Gray Mountain, by John Grisham, is in some ways a traditional Grisham novel. He often has great ideas that get you interested right off the bat. This was no exception. A Young Wall Street Lawyer gets laid off after the Financial Crisis of 2008. As a severance perk the firm pays for her health insurance if she agrees to work pro bono for a charity. As a result she finds a job with a Legal Aid firm deep in Virginia. There she discovers Appalachia and all that comes with it, including coal. The coal industry is up to its old tricks and some employees need legal help in dealing with Big Coal.
Sadly, like most Grisham novels in my opinion, he starts off with a great idea that fizzles because he does not know how to finish it. Grisham is like a good starting pitcher who needs a closer. This book is in that strong tradition. It fizzles at the end. In the meantime it did provide an entertaining read.
Before it ends, the heroine, Samantha helps a number of indigent people who were getting screwed. The saddest of her cases involves a coal miner who contracts Black Lung disease for which he is entitled to be compensated, but the system, and all embroiled in it, use that system to deny benefits. Samantha in the best tradition of the law tries to get redress. Big Coal resists. As Grisham writes, “coal companies are brilliant when it comes to finding new ways to screw people.”
As Grisham writes:
Chester said, “it’s a favorite trick in the coalfields. A company mines the coal, then goes bankrupt to avoid payments and the reclamation requirements. Sooner or later they usually pop up with another name. Same bad actors, just a new logo.”
“That’s disgusting,” Samantha said.
“No, that’s the law.”
Grisham is nothing if not cynical about lawyers and the law. But in recent years he has also painted the other side of the story, with lawyers like Samantha. There are some good lawyers too. This is what she learns from another lawyer, talking about court rooms, “I love them. It’s the only place where the little guy can go toe-to-toe on a level field with a big, crooked, corporation. A person with nothing–no money–nothing but a set of facts can file a lawsuit and force a billion dollar company to show up for a fair fight.” That is the majesty of the law. Even if the fight is not always fair, often it is. Often it brings justice. That is a pretty good thing.
For another client she helps, when no one else will, Samantha realizes this on her way home:
“As she drove away from the Starlight Motel, Samantha realized she had spent the better part of 12 hours aggressively representing Pamela Booker and her children. Had she not stumbled into the clinic that morning, they would be hiding somewhere in the backseat of their car, hungry, cold, hopeless, frightened, and vulnerable.” Again, a pretty good thing.
Sometimes– maybe not often enough, but sometimes–lawyers can be proud of what they do. Damn proud.