February 22, 2021

Scott Turow on how the law inspires his novels

Sandy Stern, the recurring protagonist in Scott Turow’s novels, including his latest, “The Last Trial,” is “without question a member of the ABA,” the author told ABA President Patricia Lee Refo.  

The acclaimed writer joined Refo for a discussion about the law and writing at the ABA Midyear Meeting on Feb. 21. 

Turow, who is also a longstanding ABA member, is a former federal prosecutor who recently retired from commercial practice in the Chicago office of Dentons US, LLP, but retains his pro bono work. He is the author of 12 works of fiction, including “Presumed Innocent” and “The Burden of Proof,” and two nonfiction books, one of which is “One L,” about his experience as a law student.

Turow explained how his first book came about. “My life’s ambition was to be a novelist, not a lawyer,” he said, speaking virtually from Naples, Florida. Turow, who had amassed many rejections when he was about to start Harvard Law School, mentioned to his agent that he had never found a book about what it’s like to be a law student, and that prompted a book contract.  

He wrote “One L” the summer after his first year, finishing it two days before starting his second year; it came out at the beginning of his third year of law school.

During the wide-ranging discussion, lawyers contemplating following in Turow’s footsteps could glean tips for how it’s done:

You can write about the law for a general audience. Turow pointed to the Netflix show “The Queen’s Gambit,” which he said can be enjoyed without knowing a lot about chess. The same can be done with the law: “a little bit goes a long way,” although “if it becomes too opaque, you’re going to lose readers,” he said. “You can write with a little bit of a black box.” If the character is nervous “and appreciates the stakes of the moment, the reader will understand it’s important as well.” That said, Turow said he tries to explain legal intricacies, even though he believes “law, especially criminal law, is not that complicated — it’s about right and wrong.”

Realize that the drama is already there. “I think what goes on in courtrooms, especially criminal courtrooms but also most civil courtrooms, is inherently dramatic,” he said. Another built-in advantage for writers is that “the flaws of humanity stand in contrast to the idealized quest of the law to be a perfectly functioning institution.”

Look to those around you to inspire characters. Turow said he still considers the law to be “a noble profession” and has been “privileged to meet more great human beings as a lawyer” than he thinks he would have in another calling.

The author said he is hard at work on his next book, which is centered on the granddaughter of Turow’s character, defense lawyer Sandy Stern.