Last night, I was at the home of my friends Bob and Mary Ann Hovis in Oakton for a fundraiser on behalf of Tom Periello, who’s running for re-election in a very tough race in the 5th Congressional District.
The guest of honor was John Grisham, former trial attorney, member of Mississippi House and noted author. It was a great thrill to meet him. Yes, he’s famous. But also one of his books kept me going as a lawyer, when all seemed lost.
First, the background:
When I came out of law school in 1994, the economy was pretty lousy. Northern Virginia had not yet recovered from a massive real estate collapse in the early Nineties.
Although I graduated from a good law school (UVA), my grades were average and my interview skills apparently needed more work, because not a single large firm in Richmond, NoVA or D.C. offered me a job. I ended up with a small firm in Alexandria at a starting salary of $43K. Man, I was happy for the work.
Unfortunately, that firm broke up a couple years later. I was left without a steady pay check. Worse yet, I had just gotten married to a full-time student. We were pretty much broke.
Along the way, I got involved in a case involving a 9-year old boy who was hit by a pizza delivery driver and left with enormous injuries. The company denied liabilty and the facts were unfavorable, as the boy was crossing the street when the accident happened. Regardless, I invested hours of my own time investigating the case: reviewing legal holdings, interviewing witnesses, walking the accident scene.
I concluded that the case would get to a jury and was thus worth taking. My former boss called me crazy. So I took the case to a new firm and took the lead on it.
I spent nearly a year putting the case together. Once we filed it, we were opposed by some very skilled defense attorneys (one of whom now sits on the Fairfax Circuit Court bench). We tried the case in Federal court in February 1997. Judge Albert Bryan presided. The jury heard all the evidence in two days.
The jury dead-locked on a verdict. After a day of waiting, we finally settled the claim with the defendants. The settlement value was my annual salary twenty-fold.
I never again wasted time listening to a senior partner.
While the case was pending, I was reading “The Rainmaker” by John Grisham which is the story of a young trial attorney taking on a large insurance company and its high-class attorneys in a wrongful death case. It’s a great yarn with all the human drama and well-drawn characters of a Dickens novel.
I told my young client about the book and described the twists and turns, even while we were waiting for the jury to come back. Somehow, the positive ending in that novel reassured us that things would work out for us in our case. And it finally did. (Serendipitously, the movie with a young Matt Damon was also released that year).
After the case was over, he presented me with a home-made “Certificate of Excellence” which reads “To Chap Petersen — on this 14th day of February, 1997 — for Being our Rain Maker.”
It still hangs in my office.
Every since that case, I knew that John Grisham was a hero of mine. Or certainly his characters were. As an author, he has branched out to write short stories and even non-fiction. A Charlottesville resident, he continues to develop as a writer.
But for me, it will always be The Rainmaker.