How a Trial Lawyer Writes a Book
[As seen in The Trial Lawyer Magazine, Spring 2015]
By Walter “Skip” Walker
So, how’s your book coming?
Seriously, you are writing a book, aren’t you?
Aren’t all lawyers? All trial lawyers, at Ieast.
And why shouldn’t we? After aII, we have wonderful stories to tell. Rip-roaring stories. Exciting, unbelievable, tragic, funny, peculiar stories about people in crisis, pain, despair, and ultimately (one hopes) exhilaration. Who wouldn’t want to read about how we (or our clients) overcame all odds to attain, achieve, or formulate justice — snatch it from the fires of hell to which it otherwise would have been condemned for all eternity?
Besides, we (and you in particular) are good with words. That is how we got to become lawyers in the first place, isn’t it? The reason we are successful lawyers, winning lawyers, is because we are better with words than our opponents — which means our opponents’ books will not be nearly as good as ours.
Because they are writing, too. Or they are going to write as soon as they are done with their briefs, motions, oppositions, pleadings, memos – – not to mention their parenting, exercising, coaching, bicycling, skiing, golfing, socializing, traveling and of course watching “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones.”
I know this because with remarkable regularity I am asked by trial lawyers from both sides of the aisle one or more of the following questions:
. How did you get published?
. Can you help me get published?
. How did you get an agent?
. Can you help me get an agent?
. Will you read my manuscript?
. And, of course, most ubiquitous
. How do you find the time?
Ah, the time. Well, it helps to have a patient and understanding spouse. It helps to have at least some control of your practice (with patient and understanding partners, bosses, associates). And it helps not to sleep, or at least not to sleep as much as other people. And, oh yes, forget improving your golf game. For that matter, forget “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones.”
When I am done providing discouraging responses to the questions set out above, I am often asked what I think about self-publishing. With developments in printing and graphics and crowdfunding, I tell my interrogators, it is possible to put out a great looking product on your own. The issue is, who is going to read it? Your friends and family, sure. Maybe your staff members who want to keep their jobs and your associates who want to be made partner. But do not expect to place it in Barnes & Noble or airport kiosks.
Not all the questions I get are about procedure. Some are about the writing process itself, such as the one from a trial lawyer whose telephone call I took because I mistakenly thought he was referring me a case: “Skip,” he said, “how do you write a book?”
Well, my friend, first you get an idea. For those of you who have gotten this far, it is time to raise your hands, speak up, remind me that you are lawyers and that, therefore, of course you have an idea, you have lots of them. Which brings me to part two of the process. Once you have the idea you have to ask yourself, who cares? Or, a little more optimistically, who will care? Or, more realistically, why should anyone care?
Over the course of my legal and writing careers I have on various occasions been called upon to lecture on the topic of writing as a professional. Last summer, at an event called ThrillerFest, which is held annually in New York City I looked out at the hundreds of middle-age and post-middle age people who had come to pick up tips on writing and getting published and wondered why so many were doing this. What rewards did these people expect to receive that would be worth putting themselves through the agony, turmoil, and frustration of writing a book? Was it to make money? Few are those who can support themselves just by writing fiction. Was it in hopes of becoming famous? Those who achieve name-recognition are fewer even than those who make money. Or was it simply a desire to create a legacy, something that says the author was here and left something behind to prove it?
Most writers will tell you that writing is just something they have to do; that the process itself makes them fulfilled. Fair enough, but it is not likely that the folks who attended ThrillerFest would be content just to sit in a room Ioading up their computers or shelves with electronic or printed pages that are going to be read by nobody but themselves. In this regard, I am reminded of a 1976 article in The New Yorker by the great John McPhee in which he describes going up to an isolated cabin in the Alaska wilderness to seek shelter as night was approaching. He knew the cabin owner, knew he lived alone, and was just about to knock on the cabin’s door when he heard the man’s voice coming from inside. He recognized the cadence and hesitated. And then he heard the speaker break into raucous laughter and realized the man had just told himself a joke. McPhee left without going through with his knock.
But let us get back to you, the trial lawyer. You are not going to be telling yourself jokes when you write your book. After all, you really do have something to say.
Sure. Because as a trial lawyer you deal with people in stress, people who have encountered the strange, the untoward, the unexpected, and sometimes the very darkest corners of life. You have read stirring lines of dialogue in depositions; experienced remarkable moments in court; known the joy and travails of living life on the edge, when every word, every exhibit, every ruling counts.
How could you not have something to say? Plenty of other trial lawyers have done it. Look at Scott Turow. Or John Grisham, who does it every six months (or so it seems). Locals, or former locals, who have done it include Richard North Patterson, John Martel, Stephen Murphy, Sheldon Siegel, Lia Matera, and John Lescroat (who was a paralegal rather than a lawyer — but still).
What do they know that you don’t? Well, maybe nothing but just in case, here are a few reminders. In fiction, the point does not have to be made, indeed should not be made, directly, with supporting authority and to a standard of more-likely-than-not. Rather, the reader needs to be swept along, not bogged down; the reader needs to feel what the author is saying, not be lectured about it. (The reader who wants to be lectured can always turn to Ayn Rand).
The adage with which most of us are familiar is “write what you know.” That does not mean, however, that everyone will be impressed with all that you know. Not every bit of legal minutiae or arcane procedure will be as fascinating to non-lawyers as it might be to you. Move the story along. That’s what Grisham does. That is what they used to do to the extreme in “LA Law” — and, hey, that show was loved by millions.
But what about my story, you want to know, the one I gleaned from real life or a real case? ReaI cases can make real stories, certainly, but fiction is not factual reporting. Consider AII the King’s Men or the movie “Chinatown” or Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” As the authors did in those fictionalized versions of real events, think about taking what you have seen or read or heard and asking, simply, “What if?” At the very least that will enable you to employ that other power possessed by successful trial attorneys everywhere, the power of imagination.
People read fiction to be entertained, to be informed, to understand. Bear that in mind when approaching that troublesome triad of questions about who cares, who will care, who should care. We trial lawyers are in a unique position to entertain, inform and enlighten. We are in the public eye, if not individually then at least collectively. We are doing something important, something of significance to others, something of which everyone is aware and about which most people want to know more – – provided, of course, that we do not get pedantic.
You have the story, you have the talent, and you won’t be pedantic, will you? We’ll leave that to the defense lawyers.