A quick look at the bestsellers list for commercial fiction reveals that lawyers are well represented in that exclusive group. John Grisham and David Baldacci are exhibit A and B. Often even law students find success. John Jay Osborn wrote the novel Paper Chase (which was turned into a critically acclaimed movie) as a third year student at Harvard Law School.
There are a few important reasons that lawyers make good fiction writers. As a fellow attorney and writer, here are the five that I think help the most.
1) Lawyers are Curious.
Curiosity may kill the cat, but in the legal profession, it separates the average lawyers from the very good ones. The great lawyers know what questions to ask their clients and when to ask them to get the information needed to provide the best counsel and offer solutions.
As a fiction writer, you need to constantly ask yourself questions. Why did your character do X? Why is the plot set in Y? What happens if you try Z instead? Often your first inclination on how to write a scene or character is boring and predictable. It’s only after asking probing questions that you find an alternative that takes your story to a higher level of sophistication and interest.
2) Lawyers Excel at Structuring and Organizing.
Coming up with a story and doing the actual writing isn’t the hardest part about writing a novel. It’s actually structuring your story and organizing the plot points and cast of characters in a manner that grips a reader. Few things will turn a reader off more than a story that haphazardly meanders or randomly jumps between storylines and characters.
Lawyers, by training, are excellent at structuring arguments, organizing thoughts and most importantly, implementing them in a compelling fashion. Litigators write complex briefs with dozens of interlocking arguments supported by facts to persuade a judge or jury their position is correct. Lawyers in the corporate world regularly structure complex M&A deals, draft sophisticated contracts and find creative ways to navigate intimidating regulatory regimes. These skills uniquely position lawyers to successfully structure and organize an engaging novel.
3) Lawyers Can Withstand Criticism and Rejection.
This is one of the more overlooked attributes needed for an aspiring author. If you go the more traditional publishing route for your book (i.e. using an agent), you’ll almost certainly be rejected on multiple cases. In fact, odds are you’ll never receive an offer or interest from an agent. If your book is published or you choose to DIY self publish, be prepared for negative feedback and reviews. Some will be harsh enough that you’ll want to abandon the entire publishing effort. Even then, your book may not sell like you expected.
Lawyers seem to disproportionately experience criticism and rejection on a daily basis and especially in the formative years just out of law school. Young lawyers working in firms are the proverbial red-headed stepchildren of law firm partners. Litigators are often chastised and dressed down by judges in very public forums. Corporate and commercial attorneys routinely fail at contract negotiations. The best lawyers learn to accept criticism and rejection and learn from it. Sometimes though there’s nothing you can do about it except move on to the next project, and that in and of itself is an important lesson that translates well to writing and publishing novels.
4) Lawyers Have Excellent Attention to Detail.
The devil is in the details, the saying goes, and in few professions is that more true than law. The consequences of not paying attention to details can have enormous consequences to your client. A seemingly minor oversight in a contract clause can financially cripple your client. A litigator who overlooks pertinent case law can irreparably harm his client’s case.
In writing fiction, details are critical to readers positively receiving your novel. I’m not talking about describing a character’s eye color or type of shoes. It’s making sure you provide enough information to craft believable settings, plots and characters. Often you also need the right details to convey competence and persuade readers you did your research on a key theme in your novel. Tom Clancy, with his meticulous details about military issues, is a great example of this. Missing details conveys sloppiness and unprofessionalism that can cripple your story and damage your burgeoning writing career.
5) The Stakes are High.
An underlying theme in the above reasons is that for most lawyers, their practices involve high stakes. It’s not true for all types of law, but often consequences of poor preparation or failure can result in someone going to prison, a client incurring financial hardship or a parent losing custody of their children. A lawyer who loses too many cases or fails at negotiation after negotiation will find it hard to maintain their career. These are powerful incentives to develop and master the key skills listed above, which ultimately give attorneys an advantage in writing superior commercial fiction novels.
Honorable Mentions: networking skills; creativity; persuasive writing; critical thinking. Any others that you can think of?
thumbnail illustration via shutterstock / GlebStock