Who is your favorite kid lawyer?
by Wick Downing
Earlier this year, Dutton and Company published a book by John Grisham for young readers, titled Theodore Boone, kid lawyer. Set in the present in Strattenburg, a small fictional city in the South, it tells the story of 13-year-old Theodore Boone. As an infant he’d been plagued with illness, and is thus a bit of a nerd. But his parents are lawyers and he lives in their office every afternoon after school, running errands for them, and learning his way around the courthouse. He knows all the judges, all the clerks, and all the cops. And he is enamored with the law. He’s an engaging, very believable, practical-minded kid who knows how to "get it done." Highly talented with his computer, he can find out anything that’s going on in the courthouse, and can hack his way into ongoing trials. Kids and teachers come to him for legal advice. The students at his school, his teachers, and most everyone in town call him the "kid lawyer."
In 2008, Houghton Mifflin published a book for young readers that I wrote. Set in Denver in 1973, The Trials of Kate Hope features teen-aged Kate Hope. Her father and grandfather practiced law together, until her father is killed in an auto accident. The old man changes. No longer interested in respectability, he becomes a lawyer for those who need him, rather than those who can afford him. But he can barely see. Kate helps him in the afternoons after school, where she "reads law" for him: looking up cases, preparing motions and pleadings. He tells her she could take the Bar examination. She’s "of good moral character," and has "engaged in the study of law for two successive years." She scoffs at him. "Look it up!" storms the bad-tempered old man who kicks things that get in his way. To her surprise, she finds that at one time in Colorado, all one had to show to qualify for the Bar examination was character and two years of study. Those old statutes had never been repealed. Kate becomes a lawyer.
Back in Strattenburg, Theodore is engrossed in a murder trial that is just getting underway. A husband has been charged with killing his wife. Because of Theodore’s friendship with the judge, he’s able to get his civics class front-row balcony seats, where they watch an afternoon of the biggest trial the town has ever had. The courtroom is packed. Everyone in town knows the husband did it for the money, but the evidence is way too thin. Only a few believe he’ll be convicted.
At the start of the summer school recess in 1973, Kate rides a bike to her office, but Grampa can’t come in that day. He’s sick. Kate must handle all the clients. One is an elderly spinster with only one friend: Herman, a German Sheppard: who will be destroyed right after the City Attorney can get an order signed by the judge. Kate files a "Motion for Injunctive Relief, to Prevent the Execution of a Dog." It’s her first appearance as a lawyer in court, but — after suffering a minimal amount of abuse from the judge and the city attorney — she gets a jury trial for Herman.
The son of an immigrant family is a classmate of Theodore’s. The Boones: mother, father, and son: have been conscientiously working to help the immigrants become citizens. The son knows he can trust Theodore, but he has a real problem. He tells the kid lawyer that his cousin — an illegal — knows something about the murder case that’s the talk of the town. Theodore is sworn to secrecy. He learns that the cousin witnessed enough of the crime to know that the husband did in fact murder his wife. What is the kid lawyer to do?
With the help of her "investigator," a boy who lives on the same block, Kate works up Herman’s case for her grandfather to try. She discovers that perhaps Herman did not do what he’s been accused of doing, but it will take some serious lawyering skills to save his life. Then, the day before Herman goes on trial, Grampa collapses. The judge won’t continue the trial, and Kate must try it.
If I say so myself, the knock on my book goes to its plausibility. Can anyone truly believe a teenager could be a real live honest-to-goodness lawyer? Many adults may have trouble accepting the premise, but my target audience is kids and they don’t.
Grisham’s book has no problem with plausibility. The knock on his book has to do with whether he fulfills the expectations he generates; and perhaps the knock isn’t fair. Being John Grisham, the expectations he generates are automatically out of sight.
Both novels treat lawyers and the law with a refreshing difference. Neither goes in for the kind of lawyer-bashing that is popular among novelists. That doesn’t mean that Grisham or I treat lawyers as knights in shining armor, who can do no wrong. We both have a sincere respect for that blind-folded woman with the scales in her hand who epitomizes the ideal of the law. It comes through in both books.
Those of you with children in middle school might ask your kids to read them and compare them. Who is their favorite kid lawyer?