John Grisham’s Speech on Social Change

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Future campus news editor Jacob Batte transcribed John Grisham’s speech from the Robert C. Khayat Law Center dedication that took place on Friday, April 15, 2011.


I am honored to be here today to say a few words about the Law School and about Robert Khayat.

Thirty years ago, Renae and I were married on a Friday afternoon, here in Oxford at the First Baptist Church. After a brief honeymoon, we were back the following Thursday for my law school graduation.

The speaker that day was a retired judge, I can’t recall his name and I don’t recall much of what he said, but the theme of his remarks was that we were not really needed, the profession was overcrowded – too many lawyers, too many law schools.

It seemed like an odd time and place to be dwelling on such an issue. But we had heard it all before. It didn’t really bother us, as we had heard it for three years. We got our diplomas, and we got out of here. The class of ’81 was so bright and so talented. We were exempted from taking the bar exam.

When I left 30 years ago, I did not plan to come back. I could never see myself coming back to law school. The class of ’81, as bright as we were, suffered a casualty rate in excess of 50 percent.

It was a boot camp. Then it became a prolonged battle for survival. We got out. We were done. We were gone.

I could never imagine seeing or being around people like Guff Abbott, John Robin Bradley, George Cochran, Karen Green, Parnum Williams and Bob Weems, and they’re still there. I didn’t dislike these people, but they worked for the law school, and I was through with law school forever. Or so I thought.

In the fall of 1978, I walked into my first class in law school. It was contracts. The professor was John Robin Bradley. Twenty-eight years later, my son walked into his first class in law school. It was contracts. The professor was John Robin Bradley. When Professor Bradley would nail a punch line and get a big laugh, my son would send me an email. And a couple of times as I chuckled, I said I think I’ve heard that before. But not all of the time; there was some new material.
My career as a lawyer was unremarkable and mercifully short. Nine years after we left Oxford, we were back, Renae and I, with two kids and a new profession.

I was not suing people anymore; I was not practicing law. Something great had happened to us, we were going in a different direction and kind of retired to Oxford to live an easier life. We were building a house then. I needed a place to write.

And for some reason I just gravitated back to the law school, to the library, sort of the scene of the crime. Once I got past the initial joke, it brought back a lot of memories, and as time goes by we tend to forget the bad things and remember the good ones, and I kept the good memories, and I actually enjoyed being up in the law school hiding in the stacked tiers, where I used to study for finals, writing tales about lawyers that were not true, but certainly marketable.

I would go out in the hallway and look at the class photos and look at my class and other kids in the law school and lawyers and judges I had met along the way and even some of the law professors. I would see these professors around town, at the law school, football games, restaurants around the square. I was bumping into Guff Abbott, John Robin Bradley, Uncle Tommy Etheridge, some of the old guys.

I liked them a whole lot more 10 years later, after law school. And they were all proud of me.

I got especially close to Robert Khayat. In the fall of 1978, he was our torts professor. Our initial impression of him was guarded. He smiled a lot; he was very friendly, told jokes, and he seemed genuinely concerned about our struggles during that first awful semester. Upperclassmen could be heard saying things like “Watch out.”

“It’s a setup. He smiles a lot, but he’ll kill you on the final exam.”

We we’re suspicious. His final exam was straightforward, and when he gave us good grades, our opinion of him went up tremendously. In law school certain classes bond with certain professors, and our class certainly bonded with Robert Khayat.

During our second year, he went off to Yale. He and Marty packed up the kids and went to Yale for a year for reasons that were never made clear to us. I don’t know what he did there. He did tell us that nobody ever went to class there.

Something significant happened, though, because when he left, he was Mr. Khayat, and when he came back a year later he was Dr. Khayat.

He was here 10 years later. We moved back, and we became friends and started a friendship that was still maturing.

In 1993 the movie of the Firm was released, and Renae and I took off to New York to a real fancy black tie premiere with 5,000 of our best friends that we had never met. We had not seen the movie, and it wasn’t very good, but we were able to savor the moment.

We came back to Oxford and said, “Listen, let’s do this the right way. Let’s have a premiere here in Oxford, at a real movie house, the Hoka, capacity 85 depending on how many chairs are broken or stolen.”

We sent invitations out. On the invitation dress requirement, we had simply “Socks Optional.” Khayat loved that – he framed it and hung it in his office for years. We invited 100 friends.

It was July, there was no air conditioning; it was hot.

We served Dom Perignon Champagne, a first for the Hoka. We weren’t sure if the projectors would work for two hours non-stop, but miracles do happen. I sat close to Robert and Margaret, and we had a premiere far, far finer than the one in New York.

Two years later he was named chancellor, and he asked me if I would say a few words at his inauguration. It was more like a coronation — robes, pompous ceremony, words in Latin, stuff like that. I closed my remarks that day by saying when I grow up I want to be like Robert Khayat. And I am still trying.

As chancellor we spent even more time together — football games and fundraisers. And we went to Washington to see elected officials. We had one memorable night when we honored Thad Cochran: the whole senate was there, half of Washington was there, great night. It turned into a roast; then it turned into a scorch. It got real ugly.

We hosted literary functions, we hosted dinners for important people. Ole Miss was changing.

New buildings were going up, new programs were being added, fundraising was setting a record, enrollment began this remarkable climb. He was preaching this message that this was a great public university and people were listening. Robert Khayat showed us that we should look at the past, confront it, admit what was wrong, honor what was right and move on. As a natural leader he was far more excited about the future than things that happened in the past. He has a great compassion for this state and its people.

We’ve had long conversations about Mississippi and its problems, the lack of progress in so many areas of education, the high rates of poverty, illiteracy, high school dropout, teenage pregnancy, the cycle of poverty and drugs and crime and prison, and that so many of our children don’t really have a chance.

As a chancellor, every year he saw hundreds of high school kids put their money together dreaming of college, but fall short by a thousand bucks, five hundred bucks. He tirelessly raised money for these kids.

He always worried about staying too long. All successful leaders want to go out on top, and he was no exception. We talked about this too much. He called me one time – Ole Miss had won a big football game, and he said, ‘I got it all figured out, “I’m leaving when Eli leaves.’”

I told him that’s too soon. He said to me many times, “you’ve got to tell me when it’s time to step down,” and I never told him it was time.

Later in his tenure, we began talking about a new law school, and we first had the discussion of whether or not a new law school was needed.

I suspect the old judge that spoke at my commencement was probably right.

Perhaps we don’t need as many corporate lawyers in tall buildings. Perhaps we don’t need as many small town practitioners stacked around the Square. Maybe we don’t need as many lawyers on government payrolls.

But in this country, and in this state, there is a shortage of lawyers. In this country today, at least half of our people, half of the citizens of this country do not have access to civil justice.

It’s the battered wife who can’t hire a lawyer for her divorce or protection. It’s the family living in a motel room because the shady bank cut corners on a foreclosure. It’s the veteran denied benefits. It’s the homeless child denied admission to a local school. It’s the migrant worker being paid far less than minimum wage. It’s the desperate family of a schizophrenic in need of a facility.

It’s the honest, hardworking middle-class couple who cannot afford a lawyer to take on their insurance company.

It’s a long, sad list, and when you tally it all up, it covers half of us.

Last year the Gates Foundation released the rule of the law report. They looked at all wealthy advanced nations, and their populations access to civil justice.
The U.S. was dead last.

In Mississippi right now, in Parchman and in the regional prisons, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people locked up. Victims of a criminal justice system that is broken, they spend their days behind a chain-link fence and razor wire, serving somebody else’s time.

They have no lawyers.

There is no one actively on the outside trying to get them out. There is no one fighting the injustice.

I don’t speak for this administration, nor do I speak for Robert Khayat. But I hope this law school trains young lawyers, who firmly believe that a license to practice law is a powerful tool best used when defending the poor and the weak and the falsely accused.

I don’t speak for Robert Khayat, but I know him. I know he wants this law school, now so fittingly named for him, and this campus that he cherishes, to become a driving force for social change in Mississippi.

Thank you.