As part of the 175th anniversary celebration of the UC College of Law, the college’s current students had a chance Friday afternoon to ask questions of world-famous novelist John Grisham.
On the occasion of celebrating its 175th anniversary, the University of Cincinnati College of Law moved.
Not permanently, of course, but virtually the entire enrollment of 364 students made the trek across campus to the Great Hall of Tangeman University Center on Friday afternoon for a very special opportunity created by the anniversary event – a chance to spend an hour interacting with the world’s most popular legal novelist, John Grisham.
Grisham came to town as the keynote guest for anniversary activities. He was to speak at a gala dinner to an audience of 1,000 alumni and friends of the college (an audience that will include Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland) on Friday night, but also spent time with UC law students during the afternoon.
Grisham knows more than a little about subjects that would be of interest to law students – he himself was a small-town lawyer and state representative in Mississippi for 10 years before writing became a full-time gig, and he has a son who is currently enrolled in the University of Mississippi College of Law.
Part of Grisham’s motivation in coming to Cincinnati, which he did at his own expense, was to help support the Ohio Innocence Project, based at the UC College of Law. In 2006, he published his first non-fiction book, “An Innocent Man,” which chronicled the story of a mentally-ill man in Oklahoma who was arrested for a crime he did not commit and ended up on death row, before his conviction was ultimately overturned.
Grisham, who has worked to get an Innocence Project started in Mississippi, is now a member of the national board for the Innocence Project in New York, and is working to support the approximately 30 Innocence Projects in states around the country.
“In 10 years of criminal work, I never had a client that I thought was wrongfully convicted,” said Grisham. “I wasn’t aware of the problem of wrongful convictions.”
But Grisham told the students he is always reading through newspapers and magazines looking for ideas for stories, and that process brought about change.
“I myself have changed my beliefs, and that came through working through a book. I was working on “The Chamber” and I thought the death penalty was a good thing, and I come from a conservative state where people complain if there’s a problem with the death penalty, it’s that we didn’t use it enough.
“When I got into the prisons and saw some of these things, I just flipped. A lot of that was because of moral reasons.”
Grisham decided to write “The Innocent Man” when he came across an obituary in the New York Times for Ron Williamson, the subject of the book who was wrongfully convicted in Oklahoma.
“(Writing) “The Innocent Man,” you can’t just turn that off when you’re through,” said Grisham. “I got to know that guy, even though he was dead. You get fired up by what you’re doing.”
Grisham was relaxed and affable in fielding questions on a wide variety of other subjects.
His newest book, “The Appeal,” is due to come out next week. It deals with the issue of an elected judiciary by telling the fictional tale of a candidate trying to buy his way onto on a spot on the Mississippi Supreme Court.
“This addresses a very big problem we have in this country, which is judicial elections,” Grisham said. “For more of our history, it was an okay system, but in the last 15 years, so much money has been poured into it, targeting judges based on how people vote.”
When you have a court that is closely divided on key issues important to powerful interests, the impact of outside money on elections to that court “is a huge problem,” Grisham said.
One student asked if Grisham hears much in reaction to his work from other lawyers.
“You can have an impact,” Grisham said. “I know the book “The Street Lawyer” hit a lot of people hard on the issue of homelessness. You can get a little bit on your soapbox, but not too much or you’re going to get in trouble.”
But some lawyers think he focuses on the negative.
“I’ve been battered by (some) lawyers,” he laughed. “Over 15 years, I’ve read some things I couldn’t believe. What I try to do is be honest. I write about bad lawyers, I write about good lawyers. Truthfully, most lawyers are honest and hard-working people who don’t make a lot of money. (But) you don’t want to read about those people. You want to read about the guy who’s taken all the money and run off to Brazil.”
Grisham has sold 225 million copies of his books worldwide, and nine of his novels have been made into films. He was asked if he had a most and least favorite movie among that group.
His least favorite was “The Chamber,” although he related a funny story that occurred during the early process of making the film.
Director Ron Howard was originally slated to make the film. Howard made a trip to Mississippi to go with Grisham to the death row prison in the state. At the time, Mississippi was still using the gas chamber, and the guards took Howard into the chamber and strapped him in, and then a little puff of steam was sent into the room.
“They had done this to me about three weeks prior,” said Grisham. “You come out of your skin, just straining to get out of that chair. It had an effect on Ron Howard, I think. He got the rest of the full tour of the prison and then afterwards decided he was not going to do the movie.”
Grisham’s favorite movie was “The Rainmaker.” Unfortunately, as he related, it had the misfortunate timing to debut one week before “The Titanic” overtook the nation’s theaters.
Grisham ended his remarks with a few thoughts for those on the way to becoming lawyers.
“As overcrowded as the profession is these days, there is a desperate need for more lawyers. Maybe not those who are going to work for the Wall Street firms, but we have a tremendous need at our public interest firms,” Grisham said.
Those words were well received by third-year UC law student Megan Sites, one of eight members of the audience who won a drawing to take home an autographed Grisham book. “I’m really glad he brought some attention to that issue,” said Sites. “For me personally, one of the reasons I came to the UC College of Law was because the school is known for having a devotion to public interest law, and that’s the kind of law I want to do.”
“We were very honored to have John come here, and at his own expense,” added UC College of Law dean Lou Bilionis, who moderated the session. “His visit is one of the best educational experiences we could offer to our students.”