THE STREET LAWYER by John Grisham, Doubleday, New York, 348 pp, 1998, $28; Bantam Doubleday, Dell Audio, 4 cassetts, read by Michael Beck, 6 hours, $27

THE RUNAWAY JURY by John Grisham, Doubleday, New York, 550 pages, 1996, $28; Bantam Doubleday, Dell Audio, 4 cassetts, read by Michael Beck, 6 hours, $27


Attorney John Grisham has had an unbelievable series of 9 best sellers over the past nine years. First printings now start at a million. Two of his last three best sellers touch significant medical issues. In his current best seller, The Street Lawyer, Grisham admits that before writing this book he had not worried too much about the plight of the homeless until he found his way to a Washington DC Legal Clinic for the Homeless, which raised his level of consciousness. Much of the book is about health, hunger and dying in addition to law. Frequently a nudging from the lawyer to an authority is necessary in order to help the destitute obtain health care, food, and shelter.

Michael Brock, a Yale Law School graduate and rising star in Drake & Sweeney, a Washington, DC law firm with 800 lawyers, was taken hostage on his way to his sixth floor office by a street bum who was riding the elevator with him. His narrow escape changed his life forever. His subsequent investigation of the event revealed that this man, DeVon Hardy, had been evicted from a building in which he was living by a partner at Drake & Sweeney. Brock, with the help of a key from a paralegal, enters a law partner's office, borrows the file, and goes to the 14 Street Legal Clinic to copy it since all copying at Drake & Sweeney is monitored to the page and charged to the client. Enroute, he is hit by a Jaguar speeding from a drug heist, and this simple borrowing becomes the theft of a record and a breach of ethics. Brock leaves the firm even though he has been promised a partnership in two years. He gives up his $120,000 job, the promise of $1,000,000 as a partner, to take up a $30,000 job as a street lawyer helping the homeless. As a lawyer for the homeless, he represents the street people, such as DeVon Hardy, who have been evicted as squatters, but in fact were paying tenants. They should have been given due legal process, against their landlords and his former firm of Drake & Sweeney who represented them.

Brock finds himself making sandwiches and pouring soup in the kitchens around DC. He observes the poor becoming ill and dying from exposure and inadvertent monoxide poisoning while sleeping in their cars with motors and heaters running during a blizzard. His adjustment from $900 million antitrust suits to $90 law suits such as ones involving getting a paycheck released from a fast food restaurant for a street dweller to getting a medicaid card for a homeless person is quite dramatic. But the theft of the borrowed record from his former office does cost him a suspension of his law license with an interesting twist involving his former legal firm.

In his previous blockbuster, The Runaway Jury, Grisham capitalizes on the cigarette issues and litigation before the really large settlements start to happen. He paints an industry that is so corrupt, with pockets so deep, that they have no oversight. No other legally manufactured product has killed so many people and left the perpetrators with so much money as the cigarette.

Nicholas Easter decides he does not want to be a lawyer after two years of Kansas Law School, because he would have to work for meager earning for 5-10 years under a senior partner. He meets a graduate student, Monica Marlee, who, after two bachelor's degrees, is considering law school, the "great American Baby Sitter" for directionless post graduates. Both Easter and Marlee had been following the cigarette industry for many years. Nicholas had tried to get on juries in several states. In the current cigarette litigation in Biloxi, he registered to vote immediately following arrival and hacks into the court's computer system entering his name into the jury pool.

The tobacco company has "a fund" to which all tobacco companies contribute millions of dollars as needed for legal defense operated by Rankin Fitch, a predictably shady character. He spends money on Jury experts in order to always have the "right" jury in each tobacco trial. Big tobacco knows that when they lose their first case, it will cost them billions from millions of lawsuits. Senators and congressmen also tremble, since if tobacco loses billions, they will lose millions for their re-election campaigns.

The first US tobacco liability suit by a cancer victim occurred in 1954. It was dropped thirteen years later in 1967, three years after the Surgeon General published the first major US report on smoking and health. The report concluded that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer in men. Over the years tobacco companies won a series of 16 lawsuits despite the overwhelming scientific evidence. More trial time was spent in briefs and motions to suppress evidence and the intricate pattern of exceptions to the briefs, and exceptions to the exceptions that the whole matter of law becomes the attorney's "belly laugh" at serious society. Internal documents reveal that there has been a continuous attempt to increase nicotine in the cigarette thereby increasing addictions, with ads aimed at teenagers despite the fact that it may appear to be directed to adults. As one witness points out, spending $10,000,000 on helping kids not to smoke is just a smoke screen to allow the tobacco companies to make billions by getting kids addicted. Even among the jurors, no one who smoked started smoking after age 17. Internal documents indicate that the tobacco attorneys knew this even before the attorney general's conclusions in 1964.

The lawsuit in Biloxi is funded by 8 law firms who think the time is ripe for the big win. Each donate $1 million to sue on behalf of a woman who loses her husband to cancer of the lung after smoking three packs a day for 30 years. The lawyers have the lady call off her remarriage until after the trial so she will look like the grieving widow. These eight firms are banking on winning 40% of millions in compensatory damage and untold millions in punitive damages, to teach big tobacco a lesson. Easter's manipulation of the jury, the court room, the jury experts, the attorneys, as well as video taping Rankin Fitch's breaking and entering into Easter's apartment is spell binding.

With our increasing involvement with the legal profession, these two books (or their audio tapes for the busy doctor) are worth our perusal during our leisure time to see the web we are building for our ultimate demise. As organized medicine spends considerable sums passing laws or blocking legislation, it is important that we as physicians understand the true implication of this. If the laws ever reach a jury, the picture isn't pretty. And only a lawyer could really point out that it's all really a crap shoot.

Del Meyer, MD