A Tale of Two Careers: Bestselling author advises lawyers who want to also write novels
When my first novel hit bookstores in 1994 (you remember bookstores: bricks, mortar, salespeople who actually know how to read), there was one question my lawyer friends couldn’t help but ask: “Are you going to keep practicing law?”
I told them I loved being a lawyer and saw no reason to quit, to which the typical response was something along the lines of “Gee, I’m really sorry, I hope your next book does better.”
The release of Code 6—my 30th novel—comes on the heels of my 20th year at the law firm of Boies Schiller Flexner and my 40th law school class reunion. The question is no longer why, but how, do I do both?
Here’s some advice to any lawyer who isn’t ready to quit the practice but who dreams of writing a published novel that might actually sell to readers outside the immediate family.
Step 1: introspection
• Do I read for pleasure? That may seem like a funny question, but if you don’t read or “don’t have time to read” for pleasure, you might want to re-evaluate your decision to pursue a writing career.
• Do I have the discipline? Coming up with an idea for a book is not the hard part. The self-discipline of sitting down day after day to write is what separates writers from dreamers. Finding time is a challenge. Turning off your cellphone is a good start. A gadget-free hour a day may not buy you all the time you need, but if you don’t disengage, the fictional world you create will never feel real to anyone.
• Do I have talent? I used to think that everyone has a novel lurking somewhere within their creative spirit. With the proliferation of self-published works in digital format, I have changed my mind. Determining whether you have talent begins with honest self-evaluation, but honest self-evaluation has nothing to do with fear of rejection or embarrassment.
• Assuming I do have talent, can I live with public accusations that I don’t? Some readers will love your work. Some will hate it. Goodreads, Amazon and other online platforms afford readers easy opportunities to express their views, fairly or unfairly. If a one-star review will ruin your day, you’ll need a much thicker skin.
• How will my clients react? Most clients understand that you cannot take their call if you’re in court or with another client. Don’t expect anywhere near the same level of understanding if your unavailability is due to a promotional event for your book. My personal rule of thumb is that a call from a client takes precedence over a call from my editor, my agent or anyone else in the entertainment industry—with the possible exception of Quentin Tarantino or Leonardo DiCaprio.
• How will my partners react? All of them—especially the ones whose draw is at least 10 times your advance—will expect a free book. Your response: “I’m a writer, not a publisher.”
Step 2: How is it done?
Legend has it that after receiving his 1930 Nobel Prize for literature, Sinclair Lewis was invited to speak at the Columbia University School of Journalism. When the applause finally silenced after being introduced, he acknowledged that all in the audience wanted to be writers and asked why they weren’t at home writing. Then Lewis returned to his seat. Whether that bit of literary lore is true or not, the point is valid. But it’s not the only advice for aspiring writers.
If you’re thinking about a career in writing, you’ve probably been told—perhaps all your life—that you’re a good writer. But thousands of lawyers are good writers. Our profession demands it. So how does a lawyer develop the skills to transition from legal writing to entertainment?
On one end of the spectrum is my late friend Barbara Parker, who quit her job as a Miami prosecutor to go back to school and get a degree in creative writing. She developed, wrote and rewrote her novel as part of her coursework before ever pitching it for publication. On the other end of the spectrum is my friend Phillip Margolin, a Portland, Oregon, criminal defense lawyer who shared five chapters of his first attempt at a novel with a lawyer in the entertainment industry for nothing more than an honest critique. He returned to the office from court one day to find that his partners had broken out the champagne because his agent—one he didn’t even know he had—had called to say he’d secured a book contract with a major publisher.
Between these extremes lies a world of options. If you work well with other people and can learn in a group setting, perhaps a creative writing course or seminar is for you. A good course with a talented instructor will do more than sharpen your technical skills; it will teach you to recognize good material and use it effectively, and to find material in your imagination and develop it. Courses are a safe place to experiment and make mistakes. You’ll learn not to be shattered by criticism or blinded by praise, and you’ll become more discerning about which advice to accept and which to reject.
Another option is the editorial consultant. A consultant works with you to improve your manuscript and, in addition to a fee, usually takes a percentage of your advance on publication. It goes without saying that you have to beware of scammers. Always insist on references.
Step 3: Write what you know
The 1958 novel Anatomy of a Murder by John Voelker (under the pseudonym Robert Traver) was based on a case he handled as a young trial lawyer. It’s rare that the actual practice yields bestseller material, no matter how captivating we might think our war stories are. But lawyers do see plenty of “characters”—real people with real problems who show us the best and worst of themselves. Just be sure to change the names.
Some say lawyers are natural storytellers, but if I had to point to one thing that gives us an edge, it would be this: motive. Convincing fictional characters have strong and believable motives, and successful lawyers understand what people want, why they want it and what they’re willing to risk to get it. Published lawyer/authors make good use of that understanding.
A final tip: Be realistic
This may come as a complete shock to your friends, but not every book sells as many copies as, say, the Bible. Writing probably won’t make you rich. Or famous. But if you write your favorite restaurant into the story, you might get a free bottle of wine with your next dinner. Trust me. That much I know.
This story was originally published in the February-March 2023 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “A Tale of Two Careers: Bestselling author advises lawyers who want to also write novels.”
James Grippando is counsel at Boies Schiller Flexner, a New York Times bestselling author and a winner of the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. Code 6 is his 30th novel. He is also an adjunct professor of law and literature at the University of Miami School of Law. Visit jamesgrippando.com for more information. This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.