John Grisham’s most recent novel, The Rooster Bar, turns the the staid world of for-profit law schools into a gripping thriller. For-profit law schools first became an interest of Grisham’s when he stumbled across the issue in a 2014 article in The Atlantic by Paul Campos, “The Law-School Scam.”
Campos’s article explained how for-profit law schools, some of which are owned by private-equity firms, make money by admitting students that no other schools will admit, convincing those students to take out government loans that they likely won’t be able to repay. The schools create temporary jobs to coincide with the American Bar Association’s employment-status reporting deadline, inflating the statistics about how well their students are doing post-graduation, and, with that, inflating their students’ and prospective students’ sense of their future job prospects. The private-equity firms’ role wasn’t born out of some particular interest in legal education, but, as one former professor told Campos, “was quite possibly based on a very-short-term investment perspective: the idea was to make as much money as the company could as fast as possible, and then dump the whole operation onto someone else when managing it became less profitable.”
Grisham’s book follows three third-year law students, Zola, Mark, and Todd, who realize that they’ve been duped into taking out enormous loans to attend Foggy Bottom Law, a sub-par for-profit law school that hasn’t helped them get the good jobs they’d been promised. After a friend loses his mind because of the debt he’s in, the three start investigating the shadowy figures behind their law school and the loan industry.
I talked to Grisham about the world of for-profit law school, his writing and reading habits, and his future plans. A warning: Our conversation includes some spoilers about the book’s plot, so proceed with caution. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Alana Semuels: I know you’ve said you read “The Law-School Scam” article in The Atlantic, and that inspired you. What about the article caught your eye and made you think, “This will be a good novel?”
John Grisham: A couple things. First of all, I was not aware of for-profit law schools. So that was a surprise. I really haven’t spent much time thinking about the student-debt crisis, and that was sort of an eye opener. Just the whole idea of these schools charging far too much in tuition simply because the students can borrow too much, and providing education that’s not that good to students who are not that qualified. It’s a disaster. I was really inspired by the article to dig deeper. And that’s what I did. The deeper I dug, the better the story got.
Semuels: When you say “dig deeper,” how did you do that?
Grisham: Primarily through online stuff. There’re lots of blogs written by students who are really frustrated with the system—law students and dropouts, kids who owe a fortune. There’s a bunch of blogs and websites about student debt. And when you read the blogs and you see how severe the problem is for some students, it’s pretty easy to put together a story.
Semuels: How did you then take that information and turn it into fiction? Were these characters that came naturally out of your research, or had you conjured them up before you started thinking about for-profit law schools?
Grisham: Oftentimes an idea for a novel will kind of rattle around for a long time. For example I’ve been thinking about the issue of mass incarceration, and I’ve been thinking about the issue of the opioid crisis. And when I do that, some of the characters develop along with the story. This was entirely different because this was just one moment—when I read the story, then I said, “This is the beginning of something.” The characters were all brand new, and they were all totally fictional. I wanted three third-year students who were heavily in debt and deeply frustrated, and looking for a way out.
Semuels: There’s an argument out there that people who knowingly signed up for law school and took out loans are not sympathetic because they should have known what they were getting into. What do you make of that perspective?
Grisham: Well, I guess we all believe you’re accountable for your actions, and these were students who were adults who, by the time they’d finished college and started law school, knew what they were getting into. They signed the paperwork and they knew they were going to owe the money, as opposed to some 19-year-old who might not fully appreciate the aftershocks and long-term problems of borrowing a lot of money to go to college. But they were also being misled by the law schools into believing that they could handle that much debt with a nice job. And it’s simply a scam, a scam so that the law schools can profit off of the indebtedness. So, yeah, as the novel progressed, Zola especially kept saying, “Look, we signed up for this. Nobody made us borrow this money.” And in the end they do the right thing and pay off their debts.
Semuels: How did you first come across The Atlantic’s article?
Grisham: I read the article online, and I’m trying to remember what I was looking for when I found it. I was not looking for articles about for-profit law schools; I was doing some other research, and you know, the title jumped out: “The Law-School Scam.” I thought, this should be good. And I printed the article—it’s a long article—and I read it, and I started making notes and highlighting it, and I bet I printed that thing five times in the last three years, because I’d lose it and find it again.
Semuels: What else do you read when you’re looking for ideas?
Grisham: I start off with the daily newspapers. The New York Times, you know, Washington Post, and sometimes The Wall Street Journal depending on where I am. I love newspapers and magazines. I still like the old fashioned newspaper. I’m always reading stuff like that with an eye for what might be an issue that might lead to a novel, or a story about some lawyer who steals all the money, fakes his own death, and runs away—something like that. Those stories fascinate me, and I’m just always printing, and collecting, and clipping, and adding stuff to my research files. I have a file called “future novels.”
Semuels: Which of your books have come out of this process?
Grisham: The Innocent Man is a true story I wrote, and it came from an obituary in The New York Times that I saw in December of 2004. This guy had just died, and he had been wrongly convicted, and came within five days of being executed. I read that obituary and was just floored with it, and I wrote that book. I wrote a book called The Brethren, about some crooks operating inside the state penitentiary in Louisiana, and they were scamming gay men who were still in the closet with money orders. Brilliant scam, and I read an article about them in the newspaper. And that turned me onto that story.
Semuels: When you went to law school or college, did you take on any loans? How has student debt changed since then?
Grisham: I didn’t know there were such things as student debt. I finished college 40 years ago, and I didn’t have any debt. I didn’t have any money. My parents had sacrificed; I worked a bunch of part time jobs, like most kids who went to college. Nobody ever talked about debt. I just didn’t know it existed. So it’s a much more recent phenomenon. I wasn’t aware of how big the problem was until recently. I had no interest in it, because I’m writing other things, and suddenly I read the article in The Atlantic, and I said, “Wow, this is a big problem, and it’s fascinating.”
Semuels: So you didn’t take out any loans for law school?
Grisham: No. I didn’t know you could. I started law school at Ole Miss in 1978, and I had taken the year off after college and worked and lived at home and saved all the money that I could save. I was lucky, because back then college and law school were not nearly as expensive as they are today. We well know the cost of college today has grown unbelievably. I went to two state schools because it’s all I could afford.
Semuels: Do you remember how much your law school cost?
Grisham: Oh boy, no. I had $5,000 in the bank I’d saved in my year off. And I think that lasted me about the first year with tuition and living expenses. That was 1978.
Semuels: Can you describe your writing process? Are you one of those people who wakes up at 6 a.m. and writes for five hours, or do you go to an office? How do you do it?
Grisham: That’s pretty close. I get up around 6, start writing at 7ish, go for four hours, working pretty hard. Not too many distractions. I work in a small office in a building behind the house. It’s the same computer, same desktop, same table, same chair, same quilt, same cup of coffee. There’s no internet, there’s no fax, there’s no music. I really love the time between 7:30 and 10 o’clock, when things are really quiet, and the coffee’s got you going. Those are the best hours of the day. After I write for four or five hours, I’m kind of burned out, so I go to the house, and usually do something physical. Go to the gym or whatever. I have an office in town, in Charlottesville, where we live, and I go there to kind of take care of the business end of things, check in with New York. Maybe some interviews, whatever. It's a pretty easy life.
Semuels: Monday through Friday?
Grisham: Yes, when I’m writing, I write from January through July. Six months to do a legal thriller, and that’s five days a week. Rarely on the weekends, if I’m facing the deadline of July 1st, I may do a weekend. If we want to take off somewhere for a week, we take off and go. I don’t write on the road. I get a lot of work done [in] January, February, March, when the weather’s not that good, and I can’t do much outside, and the days are kind of dreary, and it’s just a great time to write. The bulk of my books are written January, February, March, and April, five days a week.
Semuels: I heard an interview you did with Longform, and one of the tips you gave was: Always know what’s going to happen on the last page. This book definitely takes a twist at the end, when they end up in Senegal. Did you know that was going to happen when you started?
Grisham: Yeah. I knew they were going to pull off their scam. I’ve had several people comment that they didn’t really get the Senegal angle, the deportation, the removal, that didn’t—wasn’t sure where that was going. But when it’s all said and done, you realize why Senegal was used.They get away with their crime, they would be out of the country, they would be out of law school, they’d have a little cash, and they’d be in some exotic place that Zola was from. I wasn’t sure it was going to be Senegal, but I knew it was going to be some very foreign country that does not extradite U.S. fugitives.
Semuels: I know you work with the Innocence Project. Are there stories out there that are really important, that are not being reported on, but that maybe wouldn’t make a good novel or book?
Grisham: I wish I could write every wrongful conviction story, because they’re all fascinating, because of the amount of suffering, the injustice. The mistakes made at so many levels by the police and prosecutors. The fact that a man has served 25 years for a rape committed by somebody else, and that rapist is still out there. You know, those stories are just fascinating, and I would love to write all of them, but I can’t do that. You can’t flood the market with those stories.
Semuels: Are there policy prescriptions that you’ve stumbled across, or things you think should be done, to fix the law-school scam?
Grisham: I think it’s fixing itself. One for-profit law school closed in August. I think there are five or six left. One or two may be on probation with the American Bar Association. And the article in The Atlantic was in 2014. The way Mr. Campos wrote that article, it sounded as though the bubble was bursting then. That’s why I set my novel in 2014, because in 2017, I think people are onto the scam. Enrollment’s down, applications are down, admissions are down, and some of these law schools are just not going to be able to survive, because nobody wants to go there. And certainly not if you have to borrow $70,000 a year to go there. I think the law-school scam will fix itself. The bigger problem with law schools and legal education is the lack of interest these days, because applications are down everywhere, except for your elite schools.
Semuels: I know you’ve written a nonfiction book, a few children’s books. Are you planning on doing more of that, or are you sticking with fiction for your next couple?
Grisham: I don’t see any nonfiction in the future. It’s too much work and I’m too lazy. At the same time, I’ve learned, over the years, to never say never. I can look down the road and say, “Here are my next two books.” But beyond that it’s just not wise to do it, because something is going to happen, like a magazine article that really gets my attention, and gets me fired up to pursue another issue. That’s the fun part: Where’s the next idea coming from?