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July 18, 2019

ABA Journal, UA School of Law announce winner of 2019 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction

CHICAGO, July 18, 2019 – The ABA Journal and University of Alabama School of Law announced today that Sharon Bala, author of The Boat People,” will receive the 2019 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction during an Aug. 31 ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Bala is the ninth winner of the prize. The award, authorized by Lee, is given to a book-length work of fiction that best illuminates the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change.

“It’s an absolute honor to learn that ‘The Boat People’ has won the 2019 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction,” Bala said. “Writing this novel was a meditation on empathy. My greatest hope is that it has the same effect on readers.”

Nine years ago, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and to honor former law student and author Harper Lee, the University of Alabama School of Law and ABA Journal joined together to create the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.


A distinguished panel of writers and scholars selected the 2019 winner. They are: Robert Barnes, reporter, U.S. Supreme Court, The Washington Post; Steven Hobbs, Tom Bevill Chairholder of Law, UA School of Law; Claire Matturro, author and alumna, UA School of Law; Utz McKnight, chair of the department of gender and race studies and professor of political science, UA; and Gin Phillips, author, “Fierce Kingdom.”

The prize-winning book follows the story of a group of Sri Lankan refugees who escape a bloody civil war only to arrive on Vancouver Island’s shores to face the threat of deportation and accusations of terrorism.

“‘The Boat People’ is timely and powerful. Even those who think they are versed in the various vantage points involved in the complex area of immigration will gain a deeper appreciation of the nuances by reading Sharon Bala’s first novel,” said Molly McDonough, editor and publisher of the ABA Journal. “The book explores the perspectives of desperate refugees; the attorneys who – voluntarily or not – are trying to help them; and the adjudicators who are asked to make potentially life-or-death decisions with little to no evidence.”

Bala will be honored with a signed special edition of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The 2019 prize will be awarded on Aug. 31 at the Library of Congress in conjunction with the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. After the award is presented, the selection committee will discuss Bala’s “The Boat People” in relation to Lee’s work.


With more than 400,000 members, the American Bar Association is one of the largest voluntary professional membership organizations in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law. View our privacy statement online. Follow the latest ABA news at and on Twitter @ABANews.

The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.