The litigators, p.12
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       The Litigators, p.12

           John Grisham

  “That’s my point. It’s right down the street from you. You could stop by on the way home.”

  “I will not.”

  Wally slammed his legal pad onto the table. “Can’t you see what’s happening here, damn it? These people are begging us to take their cases, cases that are worth millions of bucks. There could be a huge settlement within a year. We’re on the verge of something big here, and you, as always, couldn’t care less.”

  “I will not risk my neck for this law firm.”

  “Great. So when Varrick settles and the cash pours in, you will forgo your share of the bonus. That’s what you’re telling us?”

  “What bonus?”

  Wally walked to the front door and back to the table, pacing. “Well, well, how quickly we forget. Remember the Sherman case last year, Ms. Gibson? Nice little car wreck, a rear-ender. State Farm paid sixty grand. We took a third, a nice fee of twenty thousand for good ol’ Finley & Figg. We paid some bills. I took seven grand, Oscar took seven, and we gave you a thousand bucks cash under the table. Didn’t we, Oscar?”

  “Yes, and we’ve done it before,” Oscar said.

  Rochelle was calculating as Wally was talking. It would be a shame to miss a piece of the lottery. What if Wally was right for a change? He shut up, and things were quiet and tense for a moment as the air cleared. AC rose to his feet and began growling. Seconds passed, then the distant sound of an ambulance could be heard. It grew louder, but, oddly, no one moved to the window or to the front porch.

  Had they already lost interest in their bread and butter? Had the little boutique firm suddenly outgrown car wrecks and moved on to a far more lucrative field?

  “How much of a bonus?” she asked.

  “Come on, Ms. Gibson,” Wally said, exasperated. “I have no idea.”

  “What do I tell this poor woman?”

  Wally picked up his legal pad. “I talked to her an hour ago, name’s Pauline Sutton, age sixty-two. Her forty-year-old son, Jermaine, died of a heart attack seven months ago, said he was a bit on the heavy side, took Krayoxx for four years to lower his cholesterol. A charming lady but also a grieving mother. Take one of our brand-new Krayoxx contracts for legal services, explain it to her, sign her up. Piece of cake.”

  “What if she has questions about the lawsuit and settlement?”

  “Make an appointment and get her in here. I’ll answer her questions. What’s important is getting her signed up. We’ve created a hornet’s nest here in Chicago. Every half-assed ambulance chaser in the business is now loose on the streets looking for Krayoxx victims. Time is of the essence. Can you do it, Ms. Gibson?”

  “I suppose.”

  “Thank you so much. Now, I suggest we all hit the streets.”

  Their first stop was an all-you-can-eat pizza house not far from the office. The restaurant was owned by a chain, a somewhat infamous company that was suffering through a firestorm of bad press caused entirely by its menu. A leading health magazine had analyzed its food and declared it all hazardous and unfit for human consumption. Everything was drenched with grease, oils, and additives, and no effort was made to cook anything even remotely healthy. Once the food was ready, it was served buffet style and offered at ridiculously low prices. The chain had become synonymous with hordes of morbidly obese people feeding at its buffet troughs. Profits were soaring.

  The assistant manager was a plump young man named Adam Grand, and he asked them to wait ten minutes before he could take a break. David and Wally found a booth as far away from the buffet tables as possible, which wasn’t far at all. The booth was roomy and wide, and David realized that everything in the place was oversized—plates, glasses, napkins, tables, chairs, booths. Wally was on his cell phone, eagerly lining up another meeting with a potential client. David could not help but watch the enormous people digging through piles of thick pizza. He almost felt sorry for them.

  Adam Grand slid in beside David and said, “You got five minutes. My boss is yelling back there.”

  Wally wasted no time. “You told me on the phone that your mother died six months ago, heart attack. She was sixty-six and took Krayoxx for a couple of years. How about your father?”

  “Died three years ago.”

  “Sorry. Krayoxx, perhaps?”

  “No, colon cancer.”

  “Brothers, sisters?”

  “One brother who lives in Peru. He will not be involved in any of this.”

  David and Wally were scribbling away. David felt as though he should say something important, but had nothing on his mind. He was there as the chauffeur. Wally was about to ask another question when Adam threw a curveball. “Say, I just talked to another lawyer.”

  Wally’s spine straightened; his eyes widened. “Oh, really. What’s his name?”

  “He said he was a Krayoxx expert, and he could get us a million bucks, no sweat. Is that true?”

  Wally was ready for combat. “He’s lying. If he promised you a million bucks, then he’s an idiot. We can’t promise anything in the way of money. What we can promise is that we’ll provide the best legal representation you can find.”

  “Sure, sure, but I like the idea of a lawyer telling me how much I might get, know what I mean?”

  “We can get you a lot more than a million bucks,” Wally promised.

  “Now we’re talking. How long will this take?”

  “A year, maybe two,” Wally promised again. He was sliding across a contract. “Look this over. It’s a contract between our firm and you as the legal representative of your mother’s estate.” Adam scanned it quickly and said, “Nothing up front, right?”

  “Oh no, we front the litigation expenses.”

  “Forty percent for you guys is pretty steep.”

  Wally was shaking his head. “That’s the industry average. All standard. Any lawyer doing mass torts who’s worth his salt is getting 40 percent. Some want 50, but not us. I think 50’s unethical.” He looked at David for confirmation, and David nodded and frowned at the thought of those shady lawyers out there who possessed questionable ethics.

  “I guess so,” Adam said, then signed his name. Wally snatched the contract and said, “Great, Adam, good move and welcome aboard. We’ll add this case to our lawsuit and kick things into high gear. Any questions?”

  “Yeah, what should I tell this other lawyer?”

  “Tell him you went with the best, Finley & Figg.”

  “You’re in good hands, Adam,” David said solemnly, and immediately realized he sounded like a bad commercial. Wally shot him a look that said, “Seriously?”

  “I guess that remains to be seen, doesn’t it?” Adam said. “We’ll know when the big check gets here. You promised more than a million, Mr. Figg, and I take you at your word.”

  “You won’t be sorry.”

  “See you,” Adam said and disappeared.

  Wally was stuffing his legal pad into his briefcase when he said, “That was easy.”

  “You just guaranteed the guy something over a million. Is that wise?”

  “No. But if that’s what it takes, then that’s what it takes. Here’s how it works, young David. You sign ’em up, get ’em on board, keep ’em happy, and when there’s money on the table, they’ll forget about what you said up front. Say, for example, a year from now Varrick gets sick of its Krayoxx mess and throws in the towel. Let’s say our new pal Adam here is due less than a million, pick a number—$750,000. Now, do you really believe that loser will walk away from that much money?”

  “Probably not.”

  “Exactly. He’ll be one happy boy, and he’ll forget about anything we said today. That’s how it works.” Wally took a long, hungry look at the buffet bars. “Say, you got plans for dinner? I’m starving.”

  David had no plans, but he would not be eating there. “Yeah, my wife’s waiting for a late snack.”

  Wally looked again at the troughs and the hulking masses of people grazing there. He froze for a second, then cracked a smile. “What a great idea,”
he said, complimenting himself.

  “I’m sorry.”

  “Look at those people. What’s the average weight?”

  “I have no idea.”

  “Neither do I, but if I’m a bit pudgy at 240, those folks are well over 400 pounds.”

  “You’re losing me, Wally.”

  “Look at the obvious, David. This place is packed with grossly overweight people, half of whom are probably on Krayoxx. I’ll bet if I yelled out right now, ‘Who’s on Krayoxx?’ half of these poor bastards would raise their hands.”

  “Don’t do that.”

  “I’m not, but don’t you see my point?”

  “You want to start handing out cards?”

  “No, smart-ass, but there must be a way to screen these people for Krayoxx users.”

  “But they’re not dead yet.”

  “It won’t be long. Look, we can add them to our second lawsuit of non-death cases.”

  “I’m missing something here, Wally. Help me. Aren’t we required to prove, at some point, that the drug actually causes some type of damage?”

  “Sure, and we’ll prove it later when we hire our experts. Right now, the important thing is to get everybody signed up. It’s a horse race out here, David. We gotta figure out a way to screen these folks and sign them up.”

  Six o’clock was approaching, and the restaurant was packed. David and Wally had the only booth not being used for dinner. A large family of four approached, each holding two platters of pizza. They stopped at the booth and cast menacing looks at the two lawyers. This was serious business.

  Their next stop was a duplex in a neighborhood near Midway Airport. David parked at the curb, behind an ancient Volkswagen Beetle on blocks. Wally was saying, “Frank Schmidt, age fifty-two when he succumbed last year to a massive stroke. I spoke with his widow, Agnes.” But David was only half listening. He was trying to convince himself that he was really doing this—scrambling around the rough spots of Chicago’s Southwest Side with his new boss, who couldn’t drive because of problems, after dark, on the lookout for street thugs, knocking on strange doors of untidy homes, not knowing what was inside, all in an effort to hustle clients before the next lawyer came along. What would his friends from Harvard Law think about it? How hard would they laugh? But David decided he really didn’t care. Any law job was better than his old one, and most of his friends from law school were miserable. He, on the other hand, had been liberated.

  Agnes Schmidt was either hiding or not at home. No one came to the door, and the two lawyers hurried away. As he drove, David said, “Look, Wally, I really would like to get home and see my wife. I haven’t seen her much in the past five years. Time to catch up.”

  “She’s very cute. I don’t blame you.”


  Within a week of filing its lawsuit, the firm had a total of eight death cases, a respectable number and one that would certainly make them rich. Because Wally said it so often, it had become the accepted belief that each case meant roughly half a million dollars in net fees to Finley & Figg. His math was shaky and riddled with assumptions that had little basis in reality, at least at such a preliminary stage of the litigation, but the three lawyers and Rochelle began to think in terms of that kind of money. Krayoxx was making news around the country, none of it positive, and its future looked ominous, as far as Varrick Labs was concerned.

  The firm had worked so hard to get the cases, it was a shock to realize they could actually lose one. Millie Marino arrived at the office one morning in a foul mood and demanded to see Mr. Figg. She had hired him to probate her husband’s estate, and then she had reluctantly agreed to pursue a Krayoxx claim for his death. In Wally’s office, behind closed doors, she explained she could not resolve the fact that one lawyer in the firm—Oscar—had prepared a will that kept a sizable asset—the baseball card collection—out of her reach, and now the other lawyer—Wally—was probating that same will. This, in her opinion, was a glaring conflict of interest, and downright sleazy to boot. She was upset and began crying.

  Wally tried to explain that lawyers are bound by rules of confidentiality. When Oscar prepared the will, he had to do what Chester wanted, and since Chester wanted his baseball cards hidden until after his death, then given to his son, Lyle, so be it. Ethically, Oscar could not divulge any information to anyone about Chester and his will.

  Millie didn’t see it that way. As his wife, she had a right to know about all of his assets, especially something as valuable as his cards. She had already talked to a dealer, and the Shoeless Joe card alone was worth at least $100,000. The entire collection might fetch $150,000.

  Wally really didn’t give a damn about the baseball cards, or the estate for that matter. The $5,000 fee he had once contemplated was now peanuts. He had a Krayoxx case on the line here, and he would say or do anything to keep it. “Frankly,” he said gravely as he glanced at his door, “between the two of us, I would have handled it differently, but Mr. Finley comes from the old school.”

  “Meaning what?” she asked.

  “He’s pretty chauvinistic. The husband is the head of the house, keeper of all assets, the only decision maker, you know the type. If the man wants to hide things from his wife, nothing wrong with that. Me, I’m much more liberated.” He followed this with a nervous laugh that was confusing.

  “But it’s too late,” she said. “The will has been written. Now it’s going to probate.”

  “True, Millie, but things will work out. Your husband left his baseball cards to his son, but he left you with a beautiful lawsuit.”

  “A beautiful what?”

  “You know, the Krayoxx thing.”

  “Oh, that. Yes, I’m not too happy with that either. I’ve talked to another lawyer, and he says you’re in over your head, says you’ve never handled a case like this.”

  Wally gasped for air, then managed to ask, in a squeaky voice, “Why are you talking to other lawyers?”

  “Because he called me the other night. I checked him out online. He’s in a big firm with offices all over the country, and all they do is sue drug companies. I’m thinking about hiring him.”

  “Don’t do that, Millie. These guys are famous for signing up a thousand cases, then screwing their clients. You’ll never talk to him again, just some young paralegal in the back room. It’s a scam, I swear it is. You can always get me on the phone.”

  “I don’t want to talk to you on the phone, or in person either.” She was on her feet, gathering her handbag.

  “Please, Millie.”

  “I’ll think about it, Figg, but I’m not happy.”

  Ten minutes after she left, Iris Klopeck called and asked to borrow $5,000 against her portion of the Krayoxx settlement. Wally sat at his desk with his head in his hands and wondered what might happen next.

  Wally’s lawsuit was assigned to the Honorable Harry Seawright, a Reagan appointee who had been on the federal bench for almost thirty years. He was eighty-one, anticipating retirement, and not too excited about a lawsuit that could take a few years to resolve and eat up his calendar in the process. But he was curious. His favorite nephew had been taking Krayoxx for several years, with great success and no side effects at all. Not surprisingly, Judge Seawright had never heard of the law firm of Finley & Figg. He directed his law clerk to check out the firm, and the clerk’s e-mail read: “A 2 man ham and egg operation on Preston, Southwest Side; advertises for quickie divorces, DUIs, the usual criminal, domestic, injury practice; no record of any filings in federal court in the past 10 years; no record of jury trials in state court in past 10 years, no bar association activity; they do occasionally go to court—Figg has either 2 or 3 DUIs in past 12 years; firm was once sued for sexual harassment, settled.”

  Seawright was incredulous. He e-mailed his clerk: “These guys have no trial experience, yet they filed a $100 million lawsuit against the third-largest pharmaceutical company in the world?”

  The clerk responded: “Correct.”

ge Seawright: “Insane! What’s behind this?”

  The clerk: “Krayoxx stampede. It’s the latest and hottest bad drug in the country; mass tort bar is in frenzy. Finley & Figg probably hopes to ride coattails all the way to a settlement.”

  Judge Seawright: “Keep digging.”

  Later the clerk responded: “The lawsuit is signed by Finley & Figg, but also a third lawyer—David E. Zinc, former associate at Rogan Rothberg; I called a friend there—said Zinc cracked up, bolted ten days ago, somehow landed out there at FF; no litigation experience; guess he found the right place.”

  Judge Seawright: “Let’s watch this case closely.”

  The clerk: “As always.”

  Varrick Labs was headquartered in a baffling series of glass and steel buildings in a forest near Montville, New Jersey. The complex was the work of a once famous architect who had since
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