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Book Review: John Grisham’s “The Associate” February 21, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews.
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John Grisham's new "legal thriller"

John Grisham's new "legal thriller"

John Grisham’s latest legal thriller “The Associate” tells the story of young hotshot law student, Kyle McAvoy, who is blackmailed by a clandestine organisation to infiltrate the biggest law firm in the world, Scully & Pershing, to steal some highly confidential information involved in a multi-billion dollar law suit. 

Sounds like a ripper, right?  That’s what I thought when I rushed out to buy the book.  However, I was left disappointed.  Deeply disappointed.  Allow me to explain.

How I found out about the book

“The Associate” was first brought to my attention via an article emailed to me by my best mate, a fellow lawyer who’s slaving away in Biglaw (the colloquial term for big, multinational, nasty law firms) in New York.  In the article, Grisham plugs his new novel, which he claims is very critical of life in Biglaw.  Grisham has no sympathy for young people who sign their lives away to such firms, working around the clock under immense pressure, often leaving their partners, families and morals at the door.  These people know exactly what they’re getting themselves into, Grisham says.  There are plenty of websites and blogs out there that detail the plethora of horror stories at Biglaw.  He’s proud of his currently unemployed son who turned down lucrative Biglaw offers to find work that will help real people.  Grisham even hired a research assistant to spend a year in Biglaw to find out what life is really like under the promise of anonymity – which led to interesting results.

As someone who struggled through 3 years at a big law firm himself (and may return to it), you can understand how I would have been intrigued by “The Associate”.  After all, everything the book seemed to be about connected with me.  I had seen plenty of movies adapted from Grisham’s novels, but I had only read his non-fiction work “The Innocent Man”, which I felt was pretty good.  I’m working on my first novel myself and Grisham’s sold over 250 million books worldwide, so I thought this was the perfect opportunity for me to learn from the master.

How was it?

And so I went and bought the book and jumped right in.  I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot (any more than the first sentence of this post), but what I will say is that the novel was surprisingly flat.  You find out right at the start about the blackmail and what it was about.  You spend the rest of the book following the young protagonist as he deals with the demands of work, his blackmailers, his father and friends.  You keep expecting something exciting to happen.  Things will pick up any second now and it’ll turn into a real page-turner, you tell yourself.  Brace yourself for unexpected plot twists.  Expectations, expectations, expectations.  But before I knew it, the book was finished.  None of the expectations were fulfilled.

Huh?  That was it?

I flipped the pages again just to make sure I didn’t miss anything.  I couldn’t believe it.  I had finished reading the novel…and nothing happened.  The entire book was a build up towards nothing.  There wasn’t really a climax.  A few things happened here and there, but there was no big climatic finish, no dramatic twist – just a stern message to stay away from Biglaw.  And that was it.

As I said, I had never read Grisham’s fiction novels before, so there is nothing I can compare it to.  The guy is a good story-teller rather than a good writer.  He tells you what happens more often than he shows you.  He shoots the narrative at you.  It’s almost like reading a report at times.  A good report, but a report nonetheless.  Leaving aside how ridiculous and improbable the plot is (which I don’t generally have a problem with), I can only assume that “The Associate” was an anomaly.  Surely he could not have sold 250 million copies with this type of novel. 

Maybe I should read more of Grisham’s earlier works.  Any suggestions?

Depiction of Biglaw culture

As expected, “The Associate” was extremely critical of life in Biglaw.  I just didn’t expect the novel to be more of a critique of Biglaw life than a legal thriller.  Grisham squeezed in all the “unbelievable but true” stories, painting the most negative picture possible of Biglaw life, including (off the top of my head):

  • working ridiculous hours on end (eg 100 hour weeks), no sleep for days, sleeping under the desk, ridiculous stress, collapsing from exhaustion
  • partners from hell that demand the associate’s every waking hour, torture associates by making them to stay up all night doing pointless work, make up their time sheets and sleep with their secretaries and subordinates
  • inter-office sex and drug scandals
  • the absurdity of billing at 6 minute intervals
  • overbilling clients with outrageous charge-out rates, charging hundreds/thousands of dollars for mundane work like photocopying, charging clients for expensive lunches/dinners unrelated to work
  • having to defend immoral clients that make the world a worse place
  • how the big law firms suck in promising talent with shining promises then turn them into slaves
  • how most new associates leave or burn out within the first few years

The list goes on and on, but you get the point.

As a former (and possibly returning) lawyer in a big law firm, I had heard of all the horror stories, and even experienced quite a few myself.  Working until at least 3am for four consecutive Friday nights was one.  Developing a stress-induced skin condition was another.  A classic was a partner who billed over 430 hours in a single month – while pregnant (that’s over 14 hours a day even if you work every single day of a 30-day month).

However, as told through “The Associate”, I didn’t find it effective or compelling.  Perhaps it was Grisham’s overly preachy tone.  He rams it down your throat without subtlety.  Biglaw is big, bad and evil, and that was that.  Everything was black and white.  Good lawyers help needy people; greedy lawyers and stupid lawyers go to Biglaw.  Or maybe it was the way in which he wrote it, report-like and lacking in true, heart-felt emotion.  Yeah, we know Kyle hated his job, but the lack of underlying emotion and detail made it difficult to put yourself in his shoes.  We know he was feeling dreadful but we don’t feel his dread.

Strangely, despite agreeing with all the negative things about Biglaw, I found myself wanting to defend it while reading “The Associate”.  I wanted to tell Grisham that it’s not ALL bad.  You get to work with insanely clever people, good people with a wealth of knowledge and experience, people who’ve made a positive difference to the world in varying ways; make great friends who stick with you through tough times; and occasionally, you might even do some work you find interesting and rewarding. 

Just because Grisham’s heard and read about all the bad things in Biglaw (and I’ve experienced much of it) doesn’t mean it’s an unworthy or stupid career path.  While I don’t think I’m personally cut out for it, it doesn’t mean that other people aren’t.  I’ve met lawyers who are genuinely in love with their jobs, don’t mind working the hours, get pumped at the challenge of complex transactions and difficult clients, have a true passion for the law.  These people are made for Biglaw.  I’m not one of them, but they exist.  I dislike Biglaw, but other’s don’t have to.  I just think it’s a disservice to the profession and an unfair portrayal of Biglaw and its lawyers.

I would be interested to hear how people who aren’t in law perceived the story, whether they found it fascinating or if they had a similar view.


“The Associate” also contained a story arc dealing with alcoholism.  I don’t want to go into this too much, but it was a little strange.  It fits into the overall story but I couldn’t figure out why it was there or whether it made the story any better.  It was pretty stock-standard stuff, and like Grisham’s depiction of Biglaw, it was also too preachy for my liking.

[Update: this arc may have been based on a true story about a college student who got drunk and did some bad things (similar to the novel); he then went into AA and one of his steps was to apologise to people he had wronged, which he did, but it led to him being arrested and charged.  I won’t say what it was for because that would reveal too much plot.]

The movie adaptation

Shia Lebouf will be Kyle McAvoy

Shia Lebouf will be Kyle McAvoy

Apparently, Shia Lebouf (of Transformers, Disturbia and Indiana Jones 4 fame) has already been signed to play Kyle McAvoy in the movie adaptation of “The Associate.”  I must say, I can see him in that role.  He doesn’t strike me as a particularly clever guy, but I can definitely see him playing a young lawyer with street smarts.  Much of the dialogue almost seemed like it was written with him in mind – dry, scarcastic and sharp.  I think he’ll do a credible job.

However, a movie version of “The Associate” needs a lot of work.  I can already see them changing a lot of the plot in order to make things more intruiging and exciting.  If the story simply runs like the novel, it will be an incredibly boring movie to watch.

The verdict

My first Grisham fiction novel was ultimately a big disappointment.  The story had potential, as did the characters, but for some strange reason, the book never took off like I expected it too.  It started well but rolled on lethargically until a lazy finish.  Fans of Grisham will no doubt lap this up, but unless they see something I don’t, they are likely to be disappointed.  “The Associate” plays out more like a fable preaching against Biglaw than the “vintage Grisham” legal thriller it claims to be.  2 out of 5 stars.

NB: Yay!  My blog’s first book review!


1. Judy - April 3, 2009

I agree – as I read the last page I said to myself, “That’s it”!

I’ve read all of his books and really, really like them, but was very disappointed in this one.

pacejmiller - April 6, 2009

Thanks for commenting Judy. Unfortunately this was my first Grisham fiction book. So which ones would you recommend?

2. Jonathan - April 9, 2009

The Rainmaker, The Firm, The Testament, A Time To Kill, and The Summons are some of my favorites. Unlike the associate, they all have fascinating, and for the most part, believable plots that will keep you turning pages long into the night. Actually, most of his earlier books were fantastic. I hope you have not been permanently turned off to this author because of his recent mistake. He’s my favorite author of all time and I promise that you will enjoy his other work.

pacejmiller - April 9, 2009

Thanks for the tips. Everyone has been telling me The Associate is an anomaly. I think I’ll check out A Time To Kill, The Testament and The Summons…I’ve seen quite a few film versions of the other Grisham novels, though it would be interesting to compare the books to the films.

3. Full UK Review, Part IV: Books « About Writing – The Personal Blog of An Aspiring Writer - July 21, 2009

[…] Associate (John Grisham) – my first Grisham fiction novel was a shocker (full review here).   It was like Seinfeld (ie about nothing) except without the awesome jokes.  Or perhaps the […]

4. Lee - October 4, 2009

no offense, but if you’re thinking of becoming a writer, i’d suggest you not give up your day job.

pacejmiller - October 4, 2009

None taken and I haven’t given it up!

5. yerminator - April 28, 2010

I just finished the book last night and what I’ve got to say is that I’m amazed with it, so if some people is dissapointed with his new job I just want to read Grisham’s previous books immediately.
And for the movie, for some reason since the first pages of the book I saw Milo Ventimiglia as Kyle McAvoy, strange thing I don’t know why but is perfect for the role.

pacejmiller - April 28, 2010

Hey, I am amazed you were amazed by it!

That said, I do really want to read Grisham’s earlier books, such as A Time To Kill and The Firm. I read the first few pages of A Time To Kill the other day at a bookstore and I was a lot more compelled to read on than I was for The Associate.

Milo would be a good McAvoy, but I think he’s far too old now for the role. Isn’t he in his mid-thirties or something? I think there is a dearth of Hollywood actors at around Lebouf’s age and with his sophistication that producers are willing to sign at the moment. Which is why Lebouf is literally cleaning up all the big roles out there.

6. Book Review: John Grisham’s “The Firm” « About Writing – The Personal Blog of Pace J Miller - August 21, 2010

[…] first John Grisham novel, The Associate, was a shocker, and I said as much in my review of the book here.  However, several Grisham fans who commented assured me The Associate was an anomaly, and that […]

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