Story with racial justice theme wins ABA Journal's 2019 Ross essay contest for legal fiction
A lawyer who promotes economic security for survivors of domestic violence has won the ABA Journal/Ross Writing Contest for Legal Short Fiction.
Yvette Butler won the $3,000 prize for a fictional story with a theme of racial justice. She is director of capacity building and systems change for the Center for Survivor Agency & Justice.
Butler’s winning entry, “Not Built for Us,” tells the story of a black man prosecuted on a terrorism charge for participating in a peaceful protest. His lawyer is his sister, who struggles with how far she should press her claim that the charging decision was racist.
Picking up an honorable mention is Ohio lawyer Daniel Best. His story “Coiled” is about a lawyer dealing with his unhealthy response to the stress of law firm practice.
The ABA Journal Board of Editors selected the winners from finalists picked by ABA Journal editors and writers. The contest sought original fictional stories of no more than 5,000 words that illuminate the role of the law or lawyers in modern society. Entries were judged on creativity, plot exposition, legal insight and character development.
Butler chose her ABA Journal/Ross contest topic partly because of current events. She pointed to the “everlasting, amorphous war on terror” as well as issues surrounding police treatment of black people.
Writing the story was “an outlet to process what’s going on,” she says.
Butler tells the ABA Journal she has dealt with issues of racial justice throughout her career. Before her current position, she was director of policy and strategic partnerships at the Amara Legal Center, which provides legal services for victims of human trafficking and commercial sex workers.
A 2014 graduate of George Washington University Law School, Butler also interned at Human Rights First, had a fellowship at a civil rights litigation firm and worked as a judicial law clerk for a federal magistrate judge.
Butler’s fictional lawyer faces a quandary that Butler has experienced in her own life: how to determine when others are receptive to being told that a policy is racist or has racist effects. “I have my own questions about when to be extremely diplomatic and when to call things for what they are,” she says.
Butler has written testimony in support of legislation and has written blog posts, but she has only recently started writing articles with hopes of publication.
Butler says winning the ABA Journal/Ross contest will encourage her to continue writing. “I was extremely excited” about winning, she said.
Best also says he is excited and honored to receive an honorable mention for his story. He is an associate at Gallagher Sharp in Columbus, Ohio, and a 2013 graduate of the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.
Best hopes lawyers can learn from his story about a struggling associate. “Sometimes now, especially in a social media world, we feel we are the only ones going through” a difficult time, he said. But stress is something everyone experiences, and it’s “important to keep control of that stress so it doesn’t spiral you out of control,” he said.
Best says he hasn’t published any other fiction—at least at the time of his interview with the ABA Journal. He has another short story set to be published as part of the Akashic Books noir series of short story collections. Best’s story is set in Columbus and is “a little bit darker” than his story submitted to the ABA Journal/Ross contest.
“I do like writing,” Best says. “It helps me stay balanced. I think everyone needs an outlet.”
The stories will available to read online at ABAJournal.com in January 2020.
Updated on Aug. 8 to add the publication times.