The Lawyer v. The Novelist: The Case for Thinking Like a Lawyer While Writing Your Novel

Once a lawyer, always a lawyer. That’s what they told me in law school, and what they meant was this: we’re going to teach you to “think like a lawyer,” and you’re going to think that way forever, no matter what you end up doing after you get that degree.

Well, after I got that degree, I was a lawyer for a long time, so thinking like a lawyer was pretty damned useful. Now that I’m a novelist, I’m finding that my professors were right. It’s impossible to stop thinking like a lawyer, even when I want to. It’s a hindrance in some ways, but I’ve learned it can be surprisingly useful in others.

What does it mean to “think like a lawyer”? If you ask a law professor, it means thinking with rigor and analytic precision about nuanced issues, and developing the ability to perceive them from different points of view. If you ask a practicing lawyer, it means understanding that words have great power and must be chosen with care, but that their meaning can be fluid depending on the context. Both are right. But neither reckon with the single most common side effect of thinking like a lawyer:  writing like one.

I told stories when I was a lawyer. Every client I represented – even the large corporations – had a story that needed to be told. As a lawyer, though, you tell those stories in an argumentative, linear, and unrelentingly specific fashion in written briefs that are organized something like this:

I.     BIGMEGA CORPORATION IS LIABLE FOR DEFAMATION

A.  Bigmega Corporation’s Press Release Called Jane Worker a Blackmailer

[facts facts facts case law facts]

B.  Jane Worker Did Not Blackmail Bigmega Corporation

[facts facts facts facts case law]

C.   Bigmega Knew Jane Worker Did Not Blackmail It at the Time of the Press Release

[facts facts facts case law]

C.  Jane Worker Has Suffered Irreparable Harm as a Result

[more facts, more case law, more facts]

There’s a story in there, right? But you’d never write a novel that way, and that’s where thinking — and writing — like a lawyer gets in the way of thinking and writing like a novelist. For one thing, lawyers always tell, never show. You can’t leave it to the reader – who is a judge, and holds your client’s fate in her hands – to make inferences; you have to call your points out in literal terms, so they can’t possibly be missed.  In short, the legal writer can’t risk the artistry of anything but absolute clarity.

It took me a long time to find the courage as a writer to move away from such bald specificity into more lyrical allusion, and even longer to figure out how to tell my story not in the straightforward manner of an outlined brief, but in alternating chapters sixty years apart, in two voices, sometimes in flashback, and always piecemeal, in a convoluted jigsaw puzzle I have to trust a reader to suss out in a way I’d never trust a judge to be able to do.

So that’s how “thinking like a lawyer” got me into trouble as a novelist:  it made me write like a lawyer. But those legal writing skills had their upsides, too, especially with practical matters like revision. Legal briefs have strict page limits, usually 15 or 25, so a legal writer has to get her point across in as few words as possible. A creative writer should do the same, so when I needed to reduce my 169,000 word first draft to 109,000 words, I unleashed my inner legal writer. Six months later, it was done.

Then there are the words themselves. Lawyers spend a ridiculous amount of time debating the meaning of simple words, like “give” or “perform”. That’s because the meaning of words is fluid, and depends on the context of each case. A lawyer-turned-novelist will spend a similarly ridiculous amount of time choosing between words like “brusque” and “brisk”, or “cold” and “chilly”, again depending on the context. If nothing else, I’m sure this lawyerly focus on individual words has made my book more likely to say exactly what I want it to say.

What’s helped me the most, though, is the crux of what it means to “think like a lawyer”:  the ability to see every question from multiple points of view. As a lawyer, you’re only arguing one side of a question, but you can’t do that effectively unless you also understand the other side. When I was a litigator, I framed my arguments as stories, but as a writer, I think of my stories as arguments. Every character has a point of view, even though it might be in opposition to another character’s. “Thinking like a lawyer” helps me to understand my characters’ differing motivations in the same way it helped me understand – and counter — the arguments of my opposing counsel. I hope that the characters in my novel are richer, and their motives clearer and more sympathetic, because I was taught how to see with others’ eyes.

I’ve met many lawyers who dream of writing a novel someday.  That doesn’t surprise me; after all, I was one of them, and I understand that to be a lawyer — especially a litigator — is to love the art of storytelling, and often to dream of escaping the strictures imposed by legal writing and tell a made-up story with full creative license.  If you’re reading this, and you’re a lawyer with a novelist lurking inside you, by all means, let her out.  And when you do, fight the good fight against the legal writer, but embrace and use the legal thinker.

 

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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Author: Heather Young

After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

5 Replies to “The Lawyer v. The Novelist: The Case for Thinking Like a Lawyer While Writing Your Novel”

  1. My mother is a lawyer…ex-lawyer turned jazz vocalist, really. I’ve never heard anyone break down what it means to think like a lawyer so well…Looks like you’ve really learned how to take the best and leave the rest. Kudos!

  2. For over twenty years I was the writer in our small family run law practice. I also enjoyed immensely the story telling part of good lawyering. My husband ( the mouthpiece) passed away over five years ago and I gradually closed the practice. I’m just beggining my first novel so your advice was incredibly buoying. My characters seem to have a mind of their own , reminding me of recalcitrant clients. I’m not exactly in control here, even tho I’d sure like to be.
    My favorite part of your blog was actually your self-description. I had been reluctant to start a novel as I’m enjoying my retirement immensely. It’s really heartening to know that one can be a writer and a hiker, biker, and lousy potted plant caregiver. I,too, take pleasure in these pastimes , especially reading gorgeous writing that I can only admire from afar.

    1. Stephanie, it’s great to hear from you. Your reluctance to start a novel struck home; I, too, delayed for a long time because I was afraid that once I started, it would take over my life. But it didn’t — it only enriched it. Now when I’m hiking, biking, and killing plants, I’m also thinking about my characters and how to untangle my plot threads and bring out my themes…it has enlivened my entire brain. I’m so glad you’ve begun. Don’t stop. I truly believe the ONLY difference between people who finish a novel and those who don’t is that the ones who finish never stopped. I know that sounds like a tautology, but there’s a certain doggedness required to push through and write a complete novel, and many people just give up. So if you don’t give up, someday you will be done. And if you’d ever like to chat about it, feel free to email me: heather_young@me.com.

  3. Love this column and I completely agree. I followed the same progression of law/children/writing and went through the same transformation. But I never thought about how the “thinking” part helps in developing characters. You have great insights!

  4. Thanks, Liz! It took me a while to figure out how my legal training helped me write fiction; for a long time I could only see how it got in the way. But it really is very helpful in subtle ways like this that, in my opinion, make our writing deeper and richer. Good luck with your writing!!

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