Many of the books sitting on my shelf or stored in my Kindle are authored by lawyers, such as Francisco X. Stork and Kerry Reichs, whose works I’ve reviewed recently. It seems like law school is as good a stepping stone to a legal career as to a publishing career. After all, law schools pride themselves on honing a handful of skills that could translate to creative writing, such as analytical reasoning, problem-solving, critical reading, and research skills. But what is it that attracts lawyers to creative writing?
(1) Many lawyers have always wanted to write.
Many lawyers went to law school only because they didn’t know what else to do with their humanities or social science degrees. Unlike medical school, which requires a pre-med undergraduate major, many undergraduate paths can lead to a legal career. A review of Columbia Law’s entering class revealed that the majority of students had humanities or social science degrees. Indeed, it isn’t obvious how studying F. Scott Fitzgerald or 17th Century witchcraft will put food on the table and pay back educational loans. A law degree might have better odds of resulting in stable employment (and more debt), not that there aren’t any JDs making frappuccinos and delivering pizzas.
(2) There’s only so much dry legal writing lawyers can do before they crack (pun intended).
Have you ever read a legal memo? It’s painful. Now imagine having to write those dull memos day in and day out, punctuated only by mind-numbing document review, case law research, and billing your life away in six minute increments. That’s the reality for a large percentage of lawyers, particularly the underlings at large firms. The persuasive form of legal writing has been reduced to an amusing acronym: CRAC, which stands for Conclusion, Rule, Application, Conclusion, and is the blueprint upon which many lawyers build their memos. It’s dull, repetitive, and ultimately unsatisfying for lawyers who wish to be a bit more creative in their written communications. I can imagine why these more creative lawyers would have a manuscript for a novel in the works as a way of escaping the painful writing they do for money; ask any lawyer who has practiced for more than five years if they’re working on a novel and odds are good you’ll get a guilty glance and a coy “no…”
(3) Writing offers an escape from the secondary trauma associated with helping clients in difficult situations.
Individuals who work with traumatized individuals, such as police officers, therapists, and even lawyers, may suffer “secondary trauma” and burnout. The likelihood of suffering from secondary trauma is, in my opinion, probably more likely for public interest attorneys who represent traumatized clients, such as sexual and domestic violence survivors, plaintiffs’ attorneys who represent personal injury clients, and family law attorneys who are in the middle of high conflict cases. While these types of work are generally more fulfilling than the work many associates do at large law firms (see #2), it takes its toll, for which creative writing may be an escape or a way of processing the trauma to which they are exposed.
(4) Lawyers write because they have delusions of grandeur.
Law schools attract competitive students who generally excelled academically in undergrad and see themselves as using their law degrees to change the world, make a lot of money, or both. These students graduate from law school and learn a harsh reality: they are not that important.
Those who ride the On Campus Recruiting conveyor belt to large corporate defense firms will be stuck in document review, memo writing, and billable hour hell for years. Those who go into the public interest world may encounter an infinitely more palatable workplace but at a quarter of the pay and with little room for promotion in a world dominated by baby boomers. These young law school graduates—the younger edge of Generation X and the so-called Millenials—believe they will do something important, or at least newsworthy, someday. They’re going to write the next international bestseller, the next National Book Award or Pulitzer Prize winning novel, a book that will change readers’ lives. The reality is that these lawyers probably won’t write the next literary masterpiece, but their efforts may still result in a good bit of entertainment for the right audience.
As a lawyer myself, I enjoy reading novels with legal themes, particularly when it’s done well. Law school provides a general knowledge about legal theories (I think of my theory-based law school experience as getting an enhanced BA), and practice gives lawyers an “insider’s knowledge” into how society works, an introduction to interesting character types, and a peek at conflicts that could become the basis of intriguing plots. What a legal career doesn’t give its practitioners is the time to pursue interests outside of the law. I guess that’s why most of the successful authors I’ve read with JDs are former lawyers.