Mitchell McDeere, the protagonist, is an idealistic graduate of Harvard Law School at the beginning of the novel. He is something of an all-American boy, a former high-school football player who has always scored highly in whatever endeavor he undertook. He is happily married, and when he is offered the fantastic job in Memphis, his life would seem to be almost perfect. It is, however, clouded by several shadows: His widowed mother, whom he has not seen in several years, is a a waitress living with her second husband in a trailer park in Florida, and his brother Ray is serving a sentence in a Tennessee penitentiary for killing a man in a barroom brawl. As Ray points out when his brother visits him in prison, Mitchell is the first McDeere in generations who has made something of himself.
The Firm is to some degree a novel of initiation, for Mitchell, something of an idealist, learns many bitter facts of life as a result of his involvement with Bendini, Lambert, and Locke. When the plot reaches its climax, he has not only outsmarted the members of the firm, the Mafia backers, and their hired gunmen, but he has also hoodwinked the FBI agent and would seem to have gained the ascendancy. He, his wife, and his brother are in possession of eight million dollars, documents to use as security, and the necessary papers for a new life and new identity. Yet questions remain: At what cost has such a seemingly idyllic existence been achieved, and what are the perils and anguish to be faced by fugitives constantly afraid of being apprehended by dangerously vindictive members of the underworld? The groundwork for making credible the change in Mitchell’s character from bright and promising young attorney to conniving fugitive is laid in the early revelations concerning his dysfunctional family, particularly his brother’s criminal record.
Abby McDeere is a model wife and schoolteacher, product of a wealthy and privileged background, who is very much in love with her husband. Their relationship seems ideal, although the time and energy required of Mitchell by the firm annoys her, and an increasing amount of tension develops in their marriage. She remains blissfully unaware of her husband’s one-night infidelity on Grand Cayman. By the end of the novel, she is fully involved in Mitchell’s nefarious schemes to outwit both the Mafia and the FBI, and become independently wealthy. The change in her character is abrupt and, if the reader is inclined to analyze it closely, hardly credible.
The senior members of the firm—Royce McKnight, Nathan Locke, and Oliver Lambert—are rather standard “crooked lawyer” stereotypes, although Locke is given somewhat more dimension because of his grim and frightening behavior. He is early described as “an ominous and evil man,” and his appearance and demeanor are a foreshadowing of the dark secrets behind the firm’s shiny facade. The Mafia members, Joe Morolto, Lou Lazarov, and others, are fairly standard villain types, as is DeVasher, the brutal security manager for the firm, who takes pleasure in using the “bugs” in the homes of young lawyers to monitor their sex lives.
Among the FBI agents, all are stereotyped except for Wayne Tarrance, who has certain character idiosyncrasies that distinguish him from the others. His personal habits, his comments, and his appearance all serve to make him a credible, if not fully rounded, personality. The other agents, like the Mafia members in the novel, are flat and undeveloping characters.
Tammy Hemphill, although she exhibits most of the qualities of the archetypal hardboiled secretary of the archetypal private detective, is a rather well-developed...
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character. Married to an Elvis Presley impersonator so devoted to the singer that he has legally adopted Presley’s name, she loves her boss and thus becomes involved in Mitchell’s undercover scheme to outwit the firm and the FBI. Her actions are much more credible than those of Abby or even Mitchell, since she is bent on revenge for the firm’s murder of Eddie Lomax.
Mitchell (Mitch) Y. McDeere
Mitchell (Mitch) Y. McDeere, a brilliant young attorney recruited directly from Harvard Law School by Bendini, Lambert & Locke. Having grown up with a shaky family background, Mitch is ambitious and eager to attain the affluence that will separate him from his past. Mitch is shaken and terrified when he learns that the Bendini firm is being examined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for Mafia-related activities and that several attorneys died when they tried to leave the firm. Mitch comes up with a scheme that allows him and his wife to escape the firm as well as free his brother Ray from prison.
Abigail (Abby) McDeere
Abigail (Abby) McDeere, Mitch’s wife, who quickly becomes suspicious of the firm’s overzealous interest in the attorneys’ personal lives. Her suspicions are confirmed when Mitch tells her about the firm’s true nature. In spite of her fear, Abby stands by Mitch and helps him formulate his plans.
Raymond (Ray) McDeere
Raymond (Ray) McDeere, Mitch’s brother, an inmate at Brushy Mountain State Prison. Although Ray’s personality is somewhat violent and reckless, he cares deeply about his family and is far brighter than his rough background would suggest.
Wayne Tarrance, an FBI special agent assigned to infiltrate the Bendini firm. Although he wishes the McDeeres no particular harm, Tarrance is willing to risk their lives to bring down the Bendini firm. When Mitch, Abby, and Ray finally go on the run, Tarrance betrays them by launching a massive manhunt and informing the media that the McDeeres are dangerous criminals.
Avery Tolar, a partner at the Bendini firm who is assigned to mentor Mitch and becomes oddly protective of him. Avery is the “rogue” of the Bendini firm because he drinks and womanizes, both of which are strictly against the firm’s rules. When Avery learns that Mitch is about to turn the firm in to the FBI, he seems almost relieved and simply waits at his girlfriend’s apartment until DeVasher’s men eventually find and kill him.
Tammy Hemphill, Eddie Lomax’s street-smart secretary. When Eddie is killed, Tammy contacts Mitch and works with him to obtain the incriminating documents needed by the FBI to bring down the Bendini firm.
Eddie Lomax, a private detective. Lomax was Ray McDeere’s cellmate in prison and became a loyal friend because of Ray’s protection of him from other inmates. Mitch hires Eddie to investigate the deaths of several former associates at the Bendini firm. Eddie is soon killed by DeVasher’s men as a result of his probing questions.
Oliver Lambert, the senior partner at Bendini, Lambert & Locke. Although Oliver considers himself a gentleman, he is deeply entrenched in the firm’s illegal activities, including the “elimination” of attorneys who try to leave the firm or contact the authorities.
DeVasher, the head of security at Bendini, Lambert & Locke. DeVasher is a ruthless man who maintains contact between the firm and its Mafia owners. DeVasher takes a sadistic pleasure in eavesdropping and spying on the McDeeres and other attorneys.
Lamar Quin, a senior associate and Mitch’s closest friend at the firm. When the attorneys are enlisted to search for the missing McDeeres, Lamar demonstrates his empathy for the McDeeres’ plight by pretending not to see Ray at a convenience store rather than alerting DeVasher’s men. Because Mitch eventually turns over incriminating files to the FBI, Lamar’s action indirectly results in his own incarceration.
F. Denton Voyles
F. Denton Voyles, the director of the FBI. Like Wayne Tarrance, Voyles is more concerned about making a spectacular Mafia bust than with how the McDeeres will be affected.
Kay Quin, Lamar Quin’s wife. Kay tries to become close to Abby, who is put off by Kay’s cheerful acceptance of the firm’s meddling ways. Like most of the attorneys’ wives, Kay is oblivious to the firm’s illegal activities.
Joey Moralto, the head of the crime family for which the Bendini firm works.
Grisham admits the obvious in several interviews: that the plot conforms to the thriller formula by building suspense instead of probing character. This limitation of genre may be the novel's chief drawback. Especially when contrasted to the fully-realized characters in A Time to Kill (1989), the characters in The Firm tend only to do what the plot demands. Mitch, as will be discussed below, has dark, acquisitive inclinations that make him less than a fully admirable hero, but most other characters remain undeveloped. Grisham barely differentiates the partners in the firm such that readers often cannot keep them straight from scene to scene. The leading female characters, Abby and Tammy, are brave and resourceful, but otherwise without depth. Even Abby's distaste for the firm's demands on her husband is dismissed by other characters as a typical wifely reaction. Ray is a striking combination of violent proclivities, loyalty, and intellect, but Grisham does not probe his character.
The character who stands out from this pack the most, aside from Mitch, is Mitch's chief antagonist, DeVasher. A retired New Orleans police detective, DeVasher has been corrupted by the offerings of the Mafia and become the security chief for Bendini, Lambert & Locke. He enjoys status in the firm as the chief contact with the Chicago-based crime lords, and as such can belittle and command the partners as he wishes. He taunts Oliver Lambert for enjoying photos and tapes of associates involved in sex acts. He orders the dispensation of personnel matters, orders which include executions. His speech is biting and confident; he knows that the lawyers must sit through his insults. And his retains his detective's intelligence. He slyly figures out that Mitch must be cooperating with the FBI by realizing that the code numbers of clients' accounts that Mitch used to make photocopies and the volume of copying suggest that Mitch is gathering evidence. Resourceful, cunning, and ruthless, DeVasher provides the chief threat to Mitch.
Young enough to be DeVasher's son, Mitch is equally if not more quick-thinking, calculating, and potentially dangerous. Mitch manages to secure huge amounts of evidence and to evade capture by attuning himself to details and appearances and by very careful planning. He succeeds more by his careful planning than his physical prowess; indeed, Grisham gives him the potential handicap of an injured knee. Thus fisticuffs and madcap chases are largely absent, rendering the novel as a thriller in which the hero thinks his way out of trouble instead of punching or blasting his way out. Yet the features that set Mitch apart as a thriller protagonist are his exemplification of the American Dream and his related deep affection for money. As suggested above, Mitch springs from a dismal background: father killed in a mine explosion, mother remarried and largely irrelevant, one brother dead in Vietnam, the other brother in prison. Having no financial resources nor even the intangible, emotional support of a family, Mitch escaped his roots by the force of his personality and his drive to be the best. He could only have afforded college through financial aid, and he accepted an athletic scholarship to play football at Western Kentucky. Fate almost intervened here and cost him a college education when he hurt his knee and only WKU recruited him, a detail which shows that even the most determined achiever needs good fortune. An academic star at WKU and Harvard, Mitch is an object lesson in how to rise from the blight of poverty. The Director of the FBI tells him, "You've been hurt by every person you ever cared for, except Abby. You raised yourself, and in so doing became self-reliant and independent . . . You're hardened and callused beyond your years."
Mitch cowers before no one: He is openly confident at his job interview and strives to be a cool negotiator when confronted by the FBI. With the feds, he bargains for two supremely important rewards: security and money. When he has to escape Memphis because the firm learns that he works with the federal agents, he uses his knowledge of the firm's finances to steal millions of dollars from the Mafia, money to support him and Abby as they disappear to the Caribbean islands. Although he realizes that he was seduced into coming to Memphis by the firm's money, he still covets money as he flees. Yet he does not merely take the money and run; he spends valuable time video-taping explanations of how the firm operates; as he will never testify and though the tapes will not be admissible at trial, he still partially fulfills his agreement with the FBI by giving detailed information that they can use to crush the firm. And he diverts a million dollars to his in-laws, who manage a Kentucky bank, and another million to be held at a Florida bank for a fiftyish woman, presumably his estranged mother. Mitch thus pays his debts, both to the government and to his family, even as he also takes care of his and Abby's own financial well-being.
Mitch insists to the FBI that Ray be sprung from prison as part of the deal for cooperation. As with his lingering feelings for his addled mother, Mitch can feel responsible for others. Juxtaposed with this loyalty is his ability to be cold; he can watch Ray kill one of their pursuers with only the caution, "Don't fire the gun." He will do what is necessary to survive. Grisham gives Mitch a striking variety of traits: He is acquisitive, susceptible to temptation (monetary and sexual), yet loyal, resourceful, and intelligent.