Legally Literary: A Reading List of Lawyers (or Law Students) Turned Writers

From The Literary Hub:

Over the past two decades, I’ve worked on fiction between the spaces of my various law related jobs. Law firm associate. Federal judicial clerk. Law professor (which, happily, I still am). My debut novel, Late Bloomers, was recently released by Random House, and I found myself thinking about the lawyers-turned-writers that have inspired me over the years.

During the many years I worked on my own novel, dreaming of publication, I’d always notice if an author mentioned a J.D. degree in their bio, filing it away as inspiration. I’d feel a tiny jolt and think that maybe I, too, could someday join this club of lawyers (or former law students) who had published a book of fiction.

Now that my debut novel has been published, I’m often asked about my law background and why law-trained people are drawn to (and sometimes, quite good at) writing fiction. As I’m not inclined to make generalizations without supporting data (the academic life beats that trait out of you), I can only offer unsupported guesses. And here are a few.

Writers and lawyers pay careful attention to language. If you are a lawyer who drafts contracts, one wrong word or unartful phrase can have real consequences. Fiction writers, too, think hard about the words they choose. If you are a lawyer litigating cases, you likely write briefs and write them in ways designed to generate empathy for your client. Fiction writers, too, are in the empathy business. To empathize with another person, in circumstances different than one’s own, is why many of us write and read fiction.

Also, lawyers are in the constant company of hypotheticals: what if the facts of a case changed this way or that, what outcome then? In law school, professors pepper their students with hypotheticals (sometimes bordering on the bizarre). As a novelist, I’m engaged in a years-long hypothetical exercise; what if my characters did this or that, what then? And then, of course, there is this: The best legal writing can shine a light on inequity and remind us of our shared humanity. Great fiction often does that too.

. . . .

Again, these are just some guesses for why lawyers are drawn to writing fiction. But as I look back on the authors whose work has inspired me over the years, it is hard not to be struck by how many of them were lawyers for a time—or, at least, went to law school, even if they didn’t practice law. Here are nine novels and short story collections by former lawyers or law students that have inspired me along the way.

Elizabeth Strout received a J.D. from Syracuse University College of Law and worked briefly as a legal services lawyer. In a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, Strout described herself as a “bad lawyer” (I don’t believe that) but said that her law school training was nonetheless beneficial to her writing because “it stripped away the excessive emotion.”

Strout is one of my favorite writers, and I love all her story collections and novels, including her most recent, Lucy by the Sea. But Olive Kitteridge has a special place in my heart, and I re-read it often. Winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, Olive Kitteridge is a deeply insightful and moving collection of thirteen linked stories that follow Olive, a retired schoolteacher, and other residents of Crosby, Maine, as they grapple with love, loss, loneliness, marriage, parenting, and familial estrangement.

Min Jin Lee’s first novel, Free Food for Millionaires, introduces the unforgettable character of Casey Han, a Princeton-educated Korean-American woman raised in Queens, who struggles with debt, loneliness, heartache, ambition, and parental expectations in her post-grad twenties.

Lee studied law at Georgetown and worked as a corporate lawyer in New York for a few years before leaving to focus on her writing. In numerous interviews, she has described the grueling billable hours of her law firm job and the health concerns that drove her to quit. Despite having experienced the unrealistic demands of New York law firm life firsthand, I’m almost grateful for its unpleasantness—if for no other reason than it prompted Lee to devote herself to writing her incredible novels and sharing her astonishing talent with the world.

After graduating from Duke Law School, Ben Fountain practiced real-estate law at a large Dallas law firm for five years before deciding to pursue fiction writing full-time. Fountain discusses his law background in a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell titled “Late Bloomers” (not the reason I picked my own novel’s title, I promise). In it, Fountain describes the challenges of writing fiction at night after working law firm hours and the eighteen long years that passed between his decision to quit law and the publication of his first book, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, which won the Pen/Hemingway Award.

The stories in this terrific collection, set in locations as varied as Haiti, Columbia, Myanmar and Sierra Leone, are heartbreaking, surprising, complex, and darkly funny.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub