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Legal writers use the practice of law as a springboard into storytelling

Legal writers use the practice of law as a springboard into storytelling

By Gabriel McIntosh

“You know, all lawyers think they can write,” joked William Hubbard, president-elect nominee of the American Bar Association. “Some lawyers can actually write things that regular people want to read. And we have those lawyers here today.”

At the 2013 ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, lawyers who happen to be authors shared their journey into the literary scene and what it takes to make the transition from the practice of law to the writing of a narrative.

Talmage Boston, a full-time commercial litigator for Winstead PC in Dallas and author of three books, asked the bestselling panel of scribes to describe the moment they realized that they wanted to step back from the role of attorney and pursue a path to publishing the written word.

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“I loved practicing law for a long time and then … I didn’t,” admitted David O. Stewart, lawyer at Ropes & Gray LLP in Washington, D.C., and author of American Emperor, Impeached and The Summer of 1787. “I was feeling stale.” To make that leap from the courtroom to published stories, Stewart signed up for a writing workshop to learn more about the process.

The Nancy Drew books from a young age inspired Marcia Clark, a former prosecutor in Los Angeles County, to dream of writing. “I really liked the idea of a woman who is out there doing, as opposed to being a damsel in distress and always being saved.”

She put her early aspirations aside to practice law, until she was called upon to write about her experiences as the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, a high-profile case that captured the nation’s attention. During the process of writing Without a Doubt, she rediscovered the dormant desire to tell stories and started writing scripts in Hollywood, one scene at a time. She is now a crime novelist, publishing a fiction series that includes Guilt by AssociationGuilt by Degrees and Killer Ambition.

“There’s nothing in my background that should suggest that I should be doing this,” opined Sheldon Siegel, author of eight legal thrillers and a lawyer at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP in San Francisco. But a traumatic event that occurred while Siegel was practicing law at Pettit and Martin reorganized Siegel’s priorities and led him to believe that he did, in fact, have something interesting to tell.

“I was there that day — I was two floors above it,” Siegel said about the shooting tragedy at 101 California St. in San Francisco that led to eight deaths and six injuries. After being provided a laptop by his wife, Siegel powered up and completed his first novel while commuting on a ferry to and from his legal day job.

But even after the idea clicked that these lawyers could enter the literary world, unexpected challenges surfaced. For Stewart, the beginning was like “a year in the wilderness.” He had difficulty admitting to others that he was writing a book and found it hard to bring up in social situations. Clark found that making up your own characters and plot is not as easy as it seemed, but rather like “taking a leap out into the void. This is your iteration, this is your creation … and nobody may like it.” Siegel shared Stewart’s and Clark’s insecurities. “The hardest part was showing my manuscript to a complete stranger,” Siegel said.

Although the law requires a separate set of writing skills and more interaction with other parties, all of the writers had their day-to-day experiences to draw upon to get the creative juices flowing. When writing the back-and-forth dialogue between the homicide detectives and the district attorneys, Clark recaptured some of her real-life experiences from her former prosecutor days. “I wanted to deliver that banter and show you how they really interact together.”

Siegel’s strategy to incorporate past nemeses into his story provided a type of therapy to recover from his days at the law firm. “If you want to nail someone who has been mean to you, you put them in the book in a way that they are not recognizable enough,” Siegel confessed. “Get them just enough characteristics that all your friends know who you are naming without getting in legal trouble.”

Compared with trying cases, Siegel found there was a lot less stress in his day while writing for 12 hours in front of a computer. “It really is a chance to get out of myself,” Stewart added, describing how he would try to enter the mindset of his characters in a particular era to recreate their reality.

The authors don’t feel intimidated by the changing book market, which replaces a dog-eared paperback with an instant digital download. “The book has proved to be an incredibly flexible format,” Stewart said. “Long-form storytelling is always going to find a way; it’s always going to find an audience.”

Clark concurred, telling the audience, “People will always be reaching for that experience. All they are doing now with e-books is reaching for the experience in a more convenient way.”

Siegel pointed out that because of this technology change, there are no barriers to entry for promising authors who want to be published. However, now the market has become more crowded, and it is more difficult to discern what is a quality read. “It is so easy, and there is just so much material out there, and it is very hard to distinguish what is good and what is bad,” Siegel said.

In retrospect, the panelists are happy they took the leap of faith, found their voice and started their first manuscript. Clark summed up the enjoyment she gets from writing and explained the process as being like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. “You have to write what you are fascinated by, what you love and hope that everybody comes along for the ride.”

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