At the pretrial conference, big-city lawyer Wade Lanier does an “evidence dump.” His witness list includes 45 people not previously disclosed in discovery. Local lawyer Jake Brigance moves for a continuance. Lanier says that with two weeks remaining before trial, there’s plenty of time for Jake to call these folks. Judge Reuben Attlee denies the motion. What will Jake do?
John Grisham’s “Sycamore Row” involves a will contest, a la Dickens’s Jarndyce and Jarndyce. At the first hearing, the judge counts 11 lawyers – 10 against Jake. But, under Mississippi Law, this case will go to a jury. And Attlee isn’t going to let the case drag on for 25 years! Released in October, “Sycamore Row” topped best-sellers lists In December and January.
In the courthouse where Brigance successfully got Carl Lee Hailey acquitted of murder three years earlier (see “A Time to Kill” (1989)), he’s now probating an estate. A 71-year-old white guy named Seth Hubbard handwrites a will on a Saturday morning, mails it to Jake that afternoon; then, on Sunday after church, he hangs himself. He’d been suffering from cancer and left a suicide note, plus instructions for his funeral.
Despite his big win three years earlier, Jake hasn’t had it easy. His home torched by the KKK, he and his family are in a tiny rent-house, as a lawsuit with his homeowners’ insurance carrier drags on. His secretary is a train wreck. His disbarred, alcoholic landlord/ex-partner, Lucien Wilbanks, wants his law license back. His friend, Sheriff Ozzie Walls, protects him and maintains peace in the county.
Jake’s ship comes in, though, with the Monday mail. Hubbard, whom he never met, named him lawyer for the estate, demanding that he defend the handwritten will. Hubbard’s estate is worth $20-plus million, mostly in cash.
Hubbard’s estranged daughter and son are struck overnight with a renewed sense of love for dear old departed Dad. After the funeral, though, they learn they’ve been written out of the will. Seth bequeathed 90 percent to Lettie Lang, his black housekeeper. Seth’s family members lawyer up.
When word spreads about Lettie’s inheritance, folks claiming kinship to her come out of the woodwork. Plus, attorneys nationwide want to represent her interests. Her deadbeat husband loves the attention and retains a high-profile civil rights firm from out of state.
The wrangling that ensues is classic legal-thriller stuff. I found a lot of it to be predictable. Your results may vary.
Divorce lawyer Harry Rex Vonner serves as Jake’s unpaid law clerk on everything from strategy to jury selection. Lettie’s lawyer-wannabe daughter, Portia, becomes Jake’s assistant; she researches the ultimate issue: Absent undue influence, why would Hubbard leave $20 million to her mother?
Jake, meanwhile, has lots of billable hours. And expenses. All subject to Judge Attlee’s scrutiny.
Writing in the New York Times, Charlie Rubin hails “Sycamore Row” as a “true literary event,” conveying the message that “law burdens us with secrets that must be revealed, but the most brutal acts can be balanced by an unexpected act of salvation.”
Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at email@example.com.