At age thirty-one, Clay Carter has been working as a public defender in crime-ridden Washington, D.C., for the past five years, long enough to get thoroughly disenchanted with his job for a variety of reasons. He drives an old Honda and owns only two suits of clothing, both gray. He lives in a grungy apartment in a poor part of town. He earns only enough to survive on, while he sees his former Georgetown Law School classmates making six-figure salaries plus bonuses and moving up to partnerships.
Clay, like many other young John Grisham heroes, is losing his idealism about the law as he is ground down by overwork and association with the dregs of humanity. He is demoralized by trying to defend clients who deserve to be behind bars and who cannot be honest even with their own attorneys. He is in love with beautiful, sophisticated Rebecca Van Horn, with whom he has been having sex five times a week. She enjoys that aspect of their relationship but wants a husband who can provide the kind of upper-class lifestyle to which she is accustomed. Her parents regard Clay as a hopeless underachiever. They make him feel unwelcome at the upscale social affairs he manages to crash. His future looks grim. Then a violent incident in the slums of the big city changes Clay’s prospects as well as his entire moral and psychological outlook.
The already overworked and nearly burned-out Clay is assigned to yet another defendant whose case looks hopeless from the beginning. Tequila Watson, a twenty-year-old black man undergoing drug rehabilitation, shot and killed a known drug dealer in plain view of two witnesses. The inarticulate, mentally challenged Tequila cannot explain his violent behavior. Clay has no sympathy for his client and tries to wriggle out of the assignment, but all the other public defenders are equally overburdened by the endless stream of murderers, rapists, burglars, and armed robbers.
While Clay is conducting a cursory investigation in the worst part of Washington, D.C., in scenes reminiscent of Grisham’s The Street Lawyer(1998), the young public defender is approached by a man with many aliases, currently calling himself Max Pace. Pace describes himself as a freelance “fireman” who deals with legal problems before they get out of control. He is representing an unnamed drug company that has been using human subjects to test “Tarvan,” the code name of a new drug that might cure addiction to opium- and cocaine-based narcotics. The drug has been working wonders, in most cases. In a few test subjects, however, it produced the kind of psychotic behavior exhibited by Tequila Watson.
Pace wants to hire Clay—whom he knows to be bright, well educated, and hungry—to locate the victims’ loved ones and convince them to settle for damages out of court. After a brief wrestling match with his conscience, Clay agrees to accept an up-front fee of ten million dollars to handle the job. The drug company does not mind spending as much as a hundred million dollars to put this particular fire out, because the potential damages could amount to many billions of dollars if the truth were known. The ten million dollars is only the down payment on Clay’s great expectations. Pace can point him toward countless other lucrative tort situations and provide him with the evidence he needs to make big corporations beg to settle out of court. Thus begins a transformation of Clay’s character from idealist to cold-blooded realist, from a crusader to money-hungry lawyer. His eyes are opened to the enormous riches obtainable through mass tort actions.
On the back of the novel’s dust jacket, Grisham thoughtfully provides his legions of lay readers with the definition of “tort” from Black’s Law Dictionary: “Tort (from Lat. Torquere, to twist, tortus, twisted, wrested aside). A private or civil wrong or injury, including action for bad faith breach of contract, for which the court will provide a remedy in the form of an action for damages.” In what many readers will consider a surprisingly short time, even for a young Grisham hero, Clay has opened his own law office, hired a small army of lawyers, paralegals, and secretaries, and is flying all over the United States in...
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