Don't Quit Your Night Job
by Jessica Mason, YLS Futures Committee member
As attorneys we are expected to do one thing almost all day, every day - no, not argue or bill - write. Every lawyer must also be a writer. As it turns out, there are many attorneys for whom the skill and passion for writing that they must bring to the law, spills past the confines of briefs and contracts and into fiction. Does being a lawyer make you a better writer, or do writers perhaps make good lawyers? As an aspiring fiction writer and young attorney, I wanted to find out.
When asked if his experience in the law helped him as a writer, New York Times best-selling author, and long-time Portland defense attorney, Phil Margolin noted that the ability to process and accept criticism that is essential for legal writing and the practice of law is a great advantage when writing fiction. However, both Margolin and recently published Portland author and attorney Inara Scott both agree that the skills and techniques used for legal writing are often anathema to fiction. Scott relates that her legal writing is often accomplished with the admonition "adjectives are the tools of weak mind" lurking in the background, whereas her fiction writing often needs more detail and description than is appropriate in a brief. Personally, I always found my fiction instincts made it difficult to write like a lawyer: it's hard to state your conclusion in the first line and then again and again when you are used to avoiding giving away the ending.
Many things inspire attorneys to turn to fiction. For Margolin, the discovery of material on the infamous Payton-Alan murders inspired him to return to a passion he had nursed since he was young. This led him to author his first published book, Heartstone, but like many authors, there were several stories in his drawer and mind that had come before. Just like it's sometimes unlikely that your first legal job will be the one you keep as a career, many authors know it takes quite a few tries before getting your work out to the world. The trick, it seems, is to never think of writing as a job, otherwise you will be sorely disappointed in your success.
Margolin has always regarded writing as doing something that he loves, and not necessarily a job. Similarly, employment attorney and self-published author of the young adult novel The Unfairy Tale (available through amazon.com), Shari Lane states that she has always written and feels that writing is a compulsion, not something she does to relax or de-stress, but because she must. She loves to read and tell stories. As a young attorney and author, this resonated a great deal with me, as I feel writing is something I must do as well. It gives many of us a sense of control, a way to release feelings and stress, and a satisfying way to create something personal and beautiful. It seems that attorneys don't become authors; authors become attorneys.
Scott, like Margolin and Lane, began her adult writing career after law school, in her case while stranded in Alaska for a lengthy hearing. She too had been a writer long before she became a lawyer. She notes that writing, for her, is a passion and her "outlet for joy and expression" at the end of the day. The attorneys I spoke to did not necessarily look for careers as writers either. Margolin specifically doesn't recommend that anyone actually aspire to become a writer, but that anyone who has the passion and drive to do so should write. For all these attorneys, their experience and stability in their legal career gives them both the discipline and the freedom to follow their passion for words.
It is very hard, at the end of the day, after staring at discovery requests and emails, to sit down and stare at another screen, and write, but it is nonetheless something we do without fail, because the desire to create beauty, to escape or simply because the desire to tell a story is so incredibly strong. It turns out that being a writer is a lot like being left-handed. It's something you are, not something you do. In the end, what is a writer but a person who writes? If one wants to be a writer, then all one has to do is write and keep on writing. And being an attorney is a fine day job to keep while you're doing that.
Jessica Mason is the owner and attorney behind the curtain of St. Johns Family Law. She has completed several novels, the most recent of which is currently seeking publication.