August 23, 2017

Best-selling writers share how to make the leap from lawyer to author

Does a background in law help in becoming a best-selling writer? There is no definitive answer to that question, but a panel of accomplished attorney-authors gave ABA members insight into the matter. 

At “The Law as a Platform for Writing” session at the ABA Annual Meeting in New York, attorneys and best-selling authors Evan Thomas, James Conroy and Steph Chu described how their legal backgrounds informed and inspired their writing. At the session, moderated by lawyer-historian Talmage Boston, attorney-authors provided practical insight into what it takes to make it to the top of the charts.

Historian Evan Thomas, author of nine books, including New York Times bestsellers “John Paul Jones” and “Sea of Thunder,” is now hard at work on a biography of Justice Sandra Day O’Conner. He says law school does provide a particular set of skills to succeed in writing.

“I think law school uniquely gives you skill for writing, two of them: one, spotting the issue––what’s the point here? –– which is the key to smart writing,” said Thomas. “Also, more broadly, the really good lawyers are great storytellers; certainly, trial lawyers are great storytellers. They’re spinning a tale to convince a jury and that is a wonderful aptitude to hone. Those two qualities should well suit any writer.”

Novelist Steph Cha, author of the Juniper Song contemporary noir mysteries––“Follow Her Home” (2013), “Beware Beware” (2014) and “Dead Soon Enough” (2015)–– agrees that while there are skills learned in law school and by practicing law that help with writing, there are also certain downsides.

“I think that the analytical skills [developed in law school] are extremely useful,” said Cha. “[However,] I think there is a danger there in getting too blocky with prose, but I think that the kind of attention to detail and cleanness in writing that is required of being a lawyer is useful for sure.”

James Conroy, 2017 Lincoln Prize winning Abraham Lincoln biographer, described how his experience as a litigator has been particularly helpful as a history writer. Conroy is a founding partner of the Boston litigation boutique, Donnelly, Conroy & Gelhaar, LLP, and an elected fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

“As a litigator––I think I learned in law school and in practice––how to assemble evidence and how to make a cogent presentation in a page limit. That has helped me as a writer of history,” said Conroy. “I have also found it interesting to have the instincts when you are going through documents …and trying to weigh which of those is most likely accurate.”

The panelists shared a common talent for professional writing, but were otherwise a diverse group in age, in legal experience, background and writing genre. Whether a fiction writer or a history writer, panelists shared several words of wisdom for aspiring attorney-authors:

  • Commit to a quota of words per day and set time aside to write. “Treat writing as a job,” said Cha. “Don’t wait for music to strike.”

  • Keep it short, free of jargon and omit unnecessary words. “Good legal writing is short and straight to the point, bad legal writing is long and convoluted,” said Thomas. “Keep in mind that you are writing for a reader, not for yourself

  • To be a good writer, be a good reader. “Think about a book you’d like to read and set out to do it,” said Cha. “I want to express myself in words; I wanted to create something I would like to read”

  • Find a good agent and be open to follow his or her advice. Be willing to work with him or her on slightly changing course or strategy to publish a book, where and when necessary.

  • Be prepared for criticism and bad reviews. “Don’t get too close that you can’t see the flaws,” said Cha. “Have a thick skin.”

  • Don’t be harsh and self-conscious about writing. “Find your natural [story]telling voice,” said Cha. Thomas recommended: “Fight against being too self-conscious…keep it simple, in chronology and make sure that if you are not writing fiction that you have the material.”

While agreeing that there is no normal career path for writing books, the authors recounted key moments important to their careers: Thomas committed to journalism and professional writing shortly after finishing law school and realizing a career in law was not his calling in life; Conroy was inspired by his son, who published a book after touring with a vice-presidential candidate; and Cha found in writing a place to vent and create the type of writing she would be interested in reading.