Earlier this year, we presented a series of threads on career alternatives for attorneys. As it turns out, there are things you can do with a law degree other than working for a large law firm — and now that large law firms are laying off lawyers and even dissolving, now is a good time to revisit the topic.
One career alternative we didn’t include in the first go-round was living by the pen — probably ‘cuz it’s pretty hard to pull off. As one commenter quipped about another daunting alternative (entrepreneurship), “maybe I should try out for the Yankees while I’m at it.”
Not everyone can be John Grisham or Scott Turow. Being a writer is not so much an alternative to being an attorney as it is something you can do on the side.
Unless your spouse is willing to let you quit your job and pursue the literary dream. Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker wrote a piece recently about creativity, and how it is not the sole provenance of the young. The piece revolves around an attorney who quit his job at Akin Gump to become a full-time writer and spent 18 years at it, eventually writing a book of short stories that won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award. All the while, his wife, a Thompson & Knight partner, acted as his literary patron (i.e., the family breadwinner).
If you have a patron, or if you have lots of creativity, or if you just love spinning tales, perhaps you should think about trying your hand at the writing craft.
Last night, we attended a panel discussion at the New York City Bar Association: Non-Fiction: True Crime Stories & the Truth about Being a Lawyer-Writer. Speaking were JD-holders Thomas Adcock of the New York Law Journal, former Brooklyn prosecutor Dennis Hawkins, and legal PR maven Rosemarie Yu. Thomas Adcock has written seven books, including Dark Maze, which received an Edgar award. Hawkins and Yu have recently had their work published in the non-fiction anthology Brooklyn Noir 3.
All three are patron-less, balancing work with writing. Check out their tips for other aspiring writers, from getting started to getting published, after the jump.
Adcock started the panel off by promoting the New York Law Journal’s Fiction Contest. Lawyers and law students from across the country can enter. The winners gets $1,000 and has their story published in the New York Law Journal Magazine. The deadline has passed for this year’s contest, but you can start working on your submission for next spring.
Lawyers and literature
There was a little conversation about why lawyers can churn out great fiction — e.g., John Grisham, Lisa Scottoline, Linda Fairstein and Scott Turow. Hawkins speculated that both lawyers and authors know that “the right word, and the right sentence matter.” We chuckled a bit when he went on to raise appellate briefs to the level of great literature.The first sentence of every brief is “simple, clear, and dramatic.”
How do you get started?
Adcock, who also teaches creative writing, suggested an exercise for those who want to start writing for the first time. When you’re out on the street, let your eye fall on the most interesting person. Follow that person to see where she goes, whom she talks to, and what she buys. Closely observe her clothes and mannerisms. Then start creating a story around her, imagining her politics, her marital status, her job, her ambitions, etc.
(Around these parts, we call that stalking. But whatever works for you!)
Also, read John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist.
How do you get published?
Okay, so you stalked someone, and wrote a great book. Now what? You need an agent.
To find an agent, go to the library and check out a big yellow book called The Writer’s Market (or get it online). It lists agents and the type of material they are interested in representing. Make sure you contact an agent who is (1) licensed and (2) based in New York. New York is the literary hub of the universe.
Alternately, pick up books that are similar to what you’ve written, and find out who those writers’ agents are.
When you reach out to an agent, send them the first chapter or two of your book, along with a capsule summary of what the book’s about. Don’t send the whole manuscript.
There were a bunch of attorneys in the room, so copyright law inevitably entered the conversation. You don’t need to copyright your work before sending it to a publisher — the work is copyrighted “as soon as you put pen to paper.” But if you’re super paranoid, it’s easy to do, said one copyright attorney/writer in the audience. Just go to copyright.gov, fill out an online form, and pay 45 bucks.
So there’s the outline. And, of course, all writers will tell you this essential piece of advice: you have to sit down and write every day. And writing legal memos does not count.
To all the aspiring writers out there, good luck.