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Author John Grisham Turns to W&L Law Alumna for Help with Recent Novel

When famous author John Grisham set about writing his most recent blockbuster, the story of young lawyer who loses her big city job and ends up working legal aid in rural southwest Virginia, it wasn’t long until his research led him to Mary Cromer ’06L and the Appalachian Citizen’s Law Center (ACLC).

Opened in 2002, the ACLC was created as a non-profit public interest law firm devoted solely to providing free legal services to Appalachian citizens adversely impacted by the coal industry. Cromer and her colleagues represent miners and their families on issues of black lung and mine safety and also engage in litigation and policy work in the areas of mine safety and health, environmental protection and sustainable energy.

Grisham was referred to Cromer after speaking with Rick Middleton, founder of the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), where Cromer worked following law school. The author arranged a trip to meet with Cromer and her colleague Wes Addington, where he got an education in the variety of health, safety, and environmental issues their office handles.

“We showed him the kinds of work we do and also drove him around the area to show him some mine sites,” says Cromer. “He followed up afterward with emails when he had more questions.”

Grisham could not have been in better hands. Cromer is a native of Pound, Virginia in the heart of coal country. She came to law school knowing she wanted to work on issues related to the impact of coal mining on the environment. At W&L Law, she was a student attorney with the Black Lung Legal Clinic, which was recently recognized as one of the nation’s most innovative.

Following law school, she clerked for the Hon. Glen Conrad of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia and then as staff attorney with the SELC before joining the ACLC in 2008. In 2011, Cromer was named a “Legal Hero” by the Sierra Club for representing Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in a challenge to Kentucky’s permitting of a mountaintop removal coal mine just upstream from one of the state’s best rafting destinations.

While the young attorney in Grisham’s novel is based in a legal aid office, where poverty issues take center stage, Cromer thinks Grisham did a good job in the book giving a picture of the area and kinds of problems she and her colleagues tackle.

“Working with him was a pleasant experience,” says Cromer. “He is interested in people and telling their stories. He cares about them, and this comes through in the book.”