John Grisham-The Rooster Bar

Synopsis: Mark, Todd, and Zola came to law school to change the world, to make it a better place. As third-year students, they realize the game is up. They all borrowed heavily to attend a third-tier, for-profit law school so mediocre that graduates rarely pass the bar exam, let alone land decent jobs. After learning that their school is one of several owned by a sleazy New York hedge-fund operator who also owns a bank specializing in student loans, the three know they bought into The Great Law School Scam.

Perhaps there is a way out of this mess. Maybe there is a way to escape their crushing debt, expose the bank and the fraud, and make a few bucks in the process. First they have to quit school. Leaving law school a few months before graduation would be completely crazy, right? Well, yes and no . . .(Adapted from Goodreads)

Themes Explored: law school thriller, legal thriller, mystery, banking fraud, student loans, American Bar Association, legal education, lawyers, attorneys, immigration, bankruptcy, despair, depression, fraud, bar tending

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Review: Law School and Medical School in America represent the two most expensive education decisions anyone could ever make. As with undergraduate degrees, law degrees vary in quality depending upon the ratings tier of the University and if it is a private or public institution. On average, private Universities cost more than public ones. This year (2018), law schools report that the average student loan debt for graduating lawyers range anywhere from $24K to over $170K. However, this range only includes the effects of scholarships on tuition and excludes living expenses. Add in living expenses, which vary by state and city, and you need to double (sometimes triple or quadruple) the average costs. That means, on average, law students graduate with anywhere from $48K to $340K in student loan debt.

Take a moment to examine the toll of student loans on the average graduate from Harvard Law School. A Harvard Law graduate who paid full price, with no scholarships, will graduate owing between $297,548 and $322,348. Under the standard 10-year repayment plan, this would balloon to a repayment amount of $400,000 or $550,000 under a 20-year plan (yay for compound interest). Obviously, people attend law school with the hopes of making a nice return once they enter the working world. Current estimates are that the starting salary for a lawyer, working at a corporate firm is $160K, with a median of $135K. Lawyers employed at smaller firms or government jobs can expect salaries between $45K and $90K. Of course, this all rests on the assumption that these newly minted law graduates can pass the Bar Exam. If you do not pass the Bar, good luck paying off those loans.

In The Rooster Bar, John Grisham tackles the darker side of the law school dream: people who attend subpar law programs and graduate with crushing debt they can never repay.

Honestly, unless you can get into a top 50 (possibly top 70) law program, the debt load should deter you from accepting an offer from a low tier school. Sadly, Mark, Todd, and Zola failed to do their research before accepting offers of admission to the Foggy Bottom School of Law (this is a fake school). Foggy Bottom is an actual neighborhood in Washington, D.C. and the perfect name for a sleazy law school.

In this story, Hinds Rackley owns a network of for profit law schools. His ownership remains hidden under a mountain of shell corporations, including Varanda Capital, Baytrium Group and Lacker Street Trust. In addition, Rackley also owns several private student loan companies including Quinn & Vyrdoliac and Sorvann Lenders. These shady dealings have made Rackley billions of dollars. (Grisham borrows heavily from the Wells Fargo fraud case when explaining Rackley’s financial capers)

Once Mark, Todd and Zola figure out that the Foggy Bottom marketing team sold them a rotten bill of goods,  they realize that completing their studies is pointless. After witnessing several ambulance chasing lawyers soliciting clients at the courthouse, our three heroes figure out that nobody ever asks if these hustlers actually passed the bar. Therefore, Mark and Todd open their own practice, with offices located at the bar where Todd works.  Zola heads to the hospital to drum up clients in the ER waiting room. The owner of the Rooster Bar, Todd’s employer, lets them live in the apartment/office upstairs and use the address on their bogus business cards.

In the hectic world of traffic and municipal courts, anyone with half a brain and a decent suit could easily pretend to be a lawyer. Someone would eventually catch onto the charade and oust the pretenders, but some enterprising individuals could pull off the charade for a while, especially in busier courthouses. Mark, Todd, and Zola choose to leave school and become ambulance chasers after the tragic death of their bipolar classmate Gordy Tanner. After Gordy leaps off the Arlington Memorial Bridge, the three friends decide to evade their increasingly persistent loan officers and prove that their dead friend’s crazy conspiracy theories were correct. Gordy was the first one to link Rackley to both the law school and the student loan program. For three kids with bad grades and low LSAT scores, they prove rather savvy. They set out on the mission to bring Rackley down. The rest of the book deals with Mark, Todd, and Zola hustling to get clients and prove that Rackley knowingly provides student loans to people who cannot afford them.

Somehow this trio remains somewhat likable all while they are buying fake IDs, breaking every ethical rule in the book, falsely signing on to a class-action lawsuit inspired by the Wells Fargo customer-fraud settlement, and evading immigrant officials (in Zola’s case). Grisham makes some decent points about the state of legal education in American. Taking out a mortgage worth of loans on a degree from a middling-at-best school is a terrible life decision. Sadly, a whole loan industry has emerged that preys on naïve people with subpar grades looking to boost themselves up in the world. Someone attending a low tier law school has no business taking out 200K+ in student loans, they will never pay them back.

I like Grisham; Skipping Christmas (the inspiration for the 2004 movie Christmas with the Kranks) is one of the funniest books I have ever read. However, The Rooster Bar lacks the edge and wit of his previous legal thrillers. Todd and Mark are so interchangeable they might as well be the same character. Zola only exists so Grisham can make a heavy-handed argument about American immigration policies. While Mark, Todd, and Zola definitely have some intelligence, they just do not seem like the type of people who can drop out of law school and then con their way into a class action lawsuit. If they were that smart, how did they end up at Foggy Bottom School of Law in the first place? Overall, this is not one of Grisham’s better novels. It drags a lot in the middle of the narrative and none of the characters are overly memorable. Except for Rackley. If you are a fan of Grisham, then you might like The Rooster Bar, if not, I would suggest reading some of his earlier novels.

In the author’s note, Grisham states that his inspiration for the novel came from an article in The Atlantic called The Law-School Scam. It is an expose on for-profit law schools and makes an interesting read.

The Rooster Bar, 2017, Doubleday, ISBN: 9780385541176

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