Originally published in Pinellas County Review, January 1995
Lawyers. Write one story for the college law review and for the rest of their careers they plan to write the Great American Novel. And for every one who finally gives up that dream, along comes a Scott Turow or John Grisham to inspire another generation of dreamers.
For Miami attorney James Grippando, author of the new bestseller, The Pardon (HarperCollins), it was a combination of Turow’s best-selling novel Presumed Innocent, and the popularity of NBC-TV’s “L.A. Law” that in September 1988 convinced him to devote most nights and weekends to writing his first novel, The Dupree Conspiracy a murder mystery about a wealthy Palm Beach family.
“I always loved to write,” Grippando said in a telephone interview. “But the legal writing I had done was very esoteric stuff. My first publication was about condominium rule-making. Not the kind of stuff people giggle about at cocktail parties.”
Three years later, the Steel Hector & Davis litigator produced a monstrous first effort, 1,200 pages (275,000 words!) long. Knowing he’d need an agent to sell it, he started at the top, going right to representatives for Grisham and Robert Ludlum. Both encouraged him, but fretted that the book was way too long. The agent he finally signed with agreed and they spent the next year cutting the book in half before sending it to prospective publishers.
Don’t look for The Dupree Conspiracy on the shelves of Barnes & Noble. Nobody bought it.
But Grippando’s agent felt confident his client could write and told him to get back to work and start a new book. Easy for him to say. “I had no ideas,” Grippando recalled. “I wasn’t even a published author and I had writer’s block.”
Complicating matters, Grippando had spent four years writing in secrecy. “I had lived by two rules. Number one, I kept my writing secret. I wanted people to still treat me seriously. I wasn’t going to quit my job; I love the law. The other rule was, I was going to keep it fun. But at this point, it wasn’t fun,” he said.
A chance encounter with the law helped Grippando break through.
“I was up late one evening, till 1 a.m., frustrated,” he said. “I went for a walk around the block. Out of the blue, this cop car pulls up onto the sidewalk and blocks my path. The cop gets out of the car and demands to know where I’m going. The lawyer in me thought, ‘It’s none of your damn business,’ but I actually said, ‘I live around here.’ He said, ‘Prove it. Do you have any identification?’ I didn’t. I was in jogging shorts and a T-shirt. He told me they had a report of a peeping tom. He called into the dispatcher for the description and it fit me perfectly: Mid-30s, eyes, hair, white T-shirt, blue shorts.
“While I listened to this I was thinking, ‘I’m going to wind up in jail! I work for a prestigious law firm. Janet Reno was a partner! A past-president of the ABA was from my firm. And Jim Grippando, peeping Tom!
“Finally, the dispatcher added ‘ . . . and a mustache.'”
Grippando, who has no mustache and was not carrying a razor, was released. He ran home and immediately began writing The Pardon, the story of an innocent man arrested and accused of something he didn’t do.
His second book was unlike his first in every respect. First of all, it only took seven months to write. And this time, his agent sold it – in two weeks, for a six-figure advance. Since then, everything has broken Grippando’s way: The Pardon, published September 14, 1994, and now in its second hardcover printing, has 50,000 copies in print. People magazine raved. A paperback version is due this summer. It is an alternate selection of the Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club and the Mystery Guild. Foreign rights have sold for French, Korean and Dutch versions. Even the audiocassette, read by actor John Rubenstein, is a bestseller.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” he said. “The highs have been higher than I expected and the lows have been lower. The most gratifying thing has been getting letters from strangers all across the country saying they read it, they loved it. Because as much as your friends say they love it, you want to know what strangers think.”
All of the hubbub about his writing career didn’t affect his first love, law, until after The Pardon was published.
“I was able to maintain a full-time practice writing the book but promoting the book made it difficult to maintain a practice,” he said. As a result, he has reduced his time practicing law to 60 percent of what it once was. “That’s about the pace I will continue. Granted, I work for a firm where lawyers work pretty hard. So 60 percent of that is still a significant practice.”
He’ll also continuing chairing the 170-lawyer firm’s summer associate program, overseeing student lawyers during their try-outs with Steel Hector & Davis.
The lawyer in The Pardon, Jack Swyteck, defends gruesome criminals. Grippando based the character and his client on his experiences as a clerk for Judge Tom Clark, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta. “A good part of my practice there was handling last-minute stays of execution,” he said. “Most of the time, guilt or innocence wasn’t a factor. The guy did it.”
His practice at Steel Hector & Davis, by contrast, is less than 5 percent criminal, and of that, most is white-collar crime. Among his current cases, Grippando represents TicketMaster in a class-action suit brought by consumers claiming the company charges too much for its service charges on concerts and sporting events.
Grippando vows he’ll follow in Scott Turow’s footsteps, both writing novels and practicing law – even though writing pays more. “The days I’ve stayed home and done nothing but write,” he said, “I’ve found myself calling the office at 2 p.m. to have someone to talk to.”
The success of The Pardon may one day bring new interest to Grippando’s first book, The Dupree Conspiracy. At least he hopes so. “To this day, some people think it’s a better book,” he said. “We’re hoping some day that one will sell.”
Not that he has to wait that long to sell another book. HarperCollins, which published The Pardon, is currently considering the outline for Grippando’s next book. He expects to know their decision by mid-January.
Incidentally, he did finally tell his partners at Steel Hector & Davis about his moonlighting. “I’ve assured everyone at the firm that they’re not in the book,” he said. “But I told them to watch themselves or they be hatchet murderers or prostitutes in my next one.”
Name: James Grippando
Position: Partner, Steel Hector & Davis, Miami
Birthplace/date: Waukegan, IL; Jan. 27, 1958
Marital Status: Married Tiffany Russell, general manager of Lord & Taylor in Boca Raton, April 1994. “She’s the reason I’m one of the better dressed lawyers at my firm.”
Pre-Law: University of Florida, B.A. in political science, 1980; University of Florida Law School, 1982
First Law Job: Clerked for federal judge Tom Clark, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, Atlanta.
Why I Became a Lawyer: “I’ve always loved history. Very early in life, I saw that most prominent figures in American history were lawyers. The more I looked into it, the more the whole discipline interested me. You can get a whole history of the country by reading constitutional law cases.”
Biggest Victory: “We made law in Arthur Gaskins v. Cargill. That 1989 case started with chicken weight falsification charges against Cargill (Baldree v. Cargill). But we alleged that in retaliation for filing the case, Cargill terminated Arthur Gaskins’ contract to grow poultry. Gaskins, at the time, was president of the Northeast Florida Broiler Growers Association. There had never been a case where a chicken processor had been forced to reinstate a grower. It radically changed the way everyone in that industry conducted their business. All the processors in the industry – Perdue, Tyson and so on – always treated their growers as if their relationship was terminable at will. This case showed it was not.”
Biggest Disappointment: “The number of lawyers who come up to me and say, ‘You lucky S.O.B., now you don’t have to practice law any more.’ It’s driven home for me how widespread the dissatisfaction with the law is for so many lawyers.”
Lawyer Most Admired: Bill Killian, senior litigator, Steel Hector & Davis. “He represents everything that the profession of law – as opposed to the business of law – should be.”
Favorite Law-related Book: To Kill a Mockingbird
Favorite Non-law Book: Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe