After faltering at other college programs he studied accounting at Mississippi State University. He went to the University of Mississippi to take law. He planned to be a tax lawyer but became interested in criminal law. He graduated in 1981.
He returned to Southaven, Mississippi to practice law. His family had been residents for some years. (Southaven is in the northwest corner of the state and is often referred to as a suburb of Memphis.) For almost a decade Grisham practiced criminal law and personal injury litigation. He is described in his website bio as working 60-70 hours a week in a small firm. The time commitment and effort is familiar to my experience as a litigator in a small firm.
In an excellent article in The Guardian Grisham described his practice.
"I represented real people, poor people, who often couldn't afford to pay a lawyer, but still had problems. Directly across the street from my office were insurance companies, banks and big corporations. It was a very clear line between us, and I learned very quickly who my friends were. That's when I became a Democratic activist and eventually ran for office."
My practice also involves the needs and problems of people. A Canadian lawyer I know recounted a conversation he had with a lawyer who represented corporations in court actions. The corporate defender succinctly described the difference between acting for individuals like myself and Grisham and his work for the corporate world. He said he represented the people with the money.
On making money the Guardian article said:
He says the nature of the work he took on meant that sometimes he got paid and sometimes he didn't. "I had a lot of trouble saying no and therefore I never made that much money”.
In this kind of people practice you do not need to do pro bono work. You have enough clients whose problems are too small to pay the regular fees the work would involve or the work becomes far more involved than what they can pay for what must be done.
Grisham’s inspiration for his first novel came from a court appearance. In his website bio it states:
One day at the DeSoto County courthouse, Grisham overheard the harrowing testimony of a twelve-year-old rape victim and was inspired to start a novel exploring what would have happened if the girl’s father had murdered her assailants. Getting up at 5 a.m. every day to get in several hours of writing time before heading off to work, Grisham spent three years on A Time to Kill and finished it in 1987.
While I do not expect to become a mystery author, if it takes getting up at 5:00 a.m. to get your first book written, I can guarantee it will never happen. Today Grisham says he writes 4-5 pages a day between 7:00 and 10:00 in the morning. I like his current writing program.
There were 5,000 copies of A Time to Kill published and Grisham said he took 1,000 of them around Mississippi giving them to libraries and trying to sell the book. His writing career rocketed with the sale of movie rights to The Firm, his second book, for $600,000 before the book was even published.
With writing success he left the legal profession except for one case. It says much about Grisham that 5 years into his writing career he took several months off from writing to honour a promise to the family of a railway brakeman killed by being crushed between two cars to represent them at trial. Grisham won the case. His website said the award of $683,500 was the highest he gained for a client during his legal career.
In Part II I will have some thoughts on his legal mysteries and discuss how Grisham’s books reflect the author’s attitudes towards the practice of law.