June 4, 2020

John Grisham's "A Time To Kill" | Legal Reads

Looking for a new book recommendation? We have you covered. Every week, one of our team members will share what’s currently on their book stack and why. So take a browse through our recommended reads on topics including law, business, entrepreneurship, leadership, and critical thinking. 

Listen to Joe's review on our podcast: Episode 9

Joseph D. Nohavicka’ Pick:

My recommended read today is A Time To Kill by John Grisham.  

It was published in 1989, and it is John Grisham’s first novel. At 500 pages, it seems like a long book, and the actual trial doesn’t come until the last 100 pages. But it is worth the wait and it is a real page-turner.  I promise: you will not want to put it down.

It really has everything: legal issues, ethical dilemmas in a social critique, and a trial.

You will find it thought provoking and very relevant to the times. The book is definitely not just for lawyers, although John Grisham was a lawyer before becoming a full-time author, it is a much-needed reminder for the law profession that it is still relevant and still important.

With the events brought upon us by the pandemic, in most people's eyes, the legal profession has really lost its luster out of perceived lack of functionality.  But really, it wasn't just perceived; courts were in a self-induced coma and lawyers were designated by our Governor and President as non-essential.  At least for the beginning part of the quarantine. How do lawyers forget that?

And the truth is that this whole thing would have ended up a lot better for the legal profession and clients if there was a little more cooperation between the lawyers.

I was trying to convince one adversary in the first few weeks of the quarantine to have our entire case moved to remote arbitration for resolution of all issues and we could add into the arbitration agreement that the rules of evidence would be controlling and that all prior rulings of the court would carry over to the arbitration tribunal.  So, the attorney, and his client, would lose nothing. I made the mistake of mentioning that history was going to judge the behavior of lawyers during the crisis much the way it was done in Richard H. Weisberg's Vichy Law and the Holocaust in France, where he argues that the lawyers in that era could have done something to prevent the disenfranchisement of Jewish property owners. He was my professor at Cardozo. My adversary's response was a canned deposition script: "Counsel, I appreciate your comments, but I am not waiving my client's right to have his case in court." And that was that. The case remains in limbo to this day. 

Something to keep in mind: During the shutdown because of the Plague, when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth and penned the infamous line, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers", he made his character's knowledge set include the understanding that lawyers were necessary during times of crisis and that those wishing to take advantage of the opportunities of crisis (such as anarchy or a plague), would have a much better time of it without lawyers in the way.   

Anyway, I don't think that lawyers will be judged as harshly as Professor Weisberg did to the lawyers of France during the Holocaust, but I don't think it will be a time that we will want to think about with nostalgia. 

WARNING: The subject matter of the book is devastating – it involves the merciless rape of a very young girl. 

This is the story of the bond between a client, Carl Lee, and Jake, his lawyer. 

The novel opens with a rape a little girl named Tonya in progress. The opening pages are difficult to read.

Carl Lee, the father of the little girl kills the rapists. Carl Lee is arrested and prosecuted. Jake represents Carl Lee. Jake is a husband and father who knows he, too, would have shot anyone who raped his little girl. 

The book presents the question: Is there a difference between justice and what is legal?

And this is the reason why the story is so important for lawyers and people who will serve on a jury. If you have a snapshot of just Carl Lee planning and shooting the two men without knowing the full back-story, isn’t it clear that it was pre-meditated murder and Carl Lee should, at a minimum, be put in jail? But with the full narrative, the answer is not so simple.

The actual trial, as I said, does not occur until the last 100 pages. Get there. You will not be sorry.

In the movie version of the book, during Jake’s summation, he instructs the all-white jury, instructing the members to close their eyes and imagine their own child being brutalized. In reality, that would not have been allowed because the lawyer cannot ask the jury to put themselves in the place of the victim. In the book, however, it is a female juror who delivers that speech.  

So, was it a time to kill? Is there ever? 

If you have any interest in the practice of law, Time to Kill is a must-read.  So read it!  

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