Lawyers turned novelists

Popular mythology has it that lawyers are a bunch of sharks, who like nothing better than swilling Grange and then sending the bill to some poor schmuck.

But the truth is, what lawyers really like doing—more than anything, it seems—is hiding away in their wood-panelled offices and writing novels.

Take Sydney barrister Richard Beasley, whose best-selling 2001 novel Hell Has Harbour Views was made into an ABC telemovie. In some ways it’s not typical of fiction written by lawyers, as it’s a satire about the moral conundrums facing commercial lawyers, rather than a breathless thriller.

Beasley was pleased by reaction to the novel.

“Nobody sued over it,” he says.

Why are lawyers such successful novelists?

Where Beasley is typical of lawyers-turned-writers is that he’s made the law central to both Hell Has Harbour Views and his subsequent book, Ambulance Chaser. Also typically, his books sell well. It seems having a background in law almost guarantees a publishing contract and a place on the New York Times bestseller list. Think about writers like John Grisham, Scott Turow and Richard North Patterson, who have all used their legal backgrounds to produce mega-bestsellers.

Beasley believes there’s a reason that legally trained minds make good novelists. “You’re taught to think logically,” he says.

Logic is the thread that binds narrative together; scenes need to build on what came before, and characters need to behave within the psychological boundaries the author has bestowed upon them, or the book will be unbelievable. Beasley also points out that lawyers are immersed in drama every day, giving them wide experience to draw on. “You get conflict and you get two sides,” he says. “The sort of issues that come up are fraught with tension.”

And, of course, the reading public is insatiably interested in anything to do with the law and crime. We seem to crave reassurance that truth and justice will triumph in the end. As an added bonus, whatever hideous crime or secret set the whole story in motion is usually one that’s pretty salacious. So reading a legal thriller also gives you something wicked to enjoy, without making you feel like you’re implicated in it. You know that a moral remedy will soon be applied.

There’s nothing new in this. Stories about crime have always been popular. An early compilation of true-crime stories, A Gallery of Horrible Tales of Murder (1650), did very well for German lawyer Georg Harsdorffer. Lawyers across Europe started cranking them out, with some collections running to more than 20 volumes. Crime and the law began to appear in fiction.

But the first legal thriller written by a lawyer was Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868). It introduces many of the devices still used in detective and legal novels today: the sleuth; the multiple viewpoints; the scattering of clues; and the ultimate triumph of the law.

Although Collins’ work influenced writers like Dickens, his true heirs are the Americans, who seem to have made the legal thriller their own. One of the first American writers to take up the genre was Anna Katherine Green’s The Leavenworth Case (1878) who, although not a lawyer herself, was the daughter of one. She’s notable for introducing the guilty butler. Other writers quickly followed: Meville Davisson Post, E.C. Bentley and John Buchan, who wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). The legal genre culminated in Anatomy of a Murder (1958), written by John D. Voelker, under the name of Robert Traver.

Money matters

The University of Texas’ Marlyn Robinson, in her essay Collins to Gresham: A brief history of the legal thriller, claims that the legal writing boom petered out after Anatomy, because lawyers from the 1950s onwards were making too much money. She goes on to say that lawyers pretty much put down their pens until Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent (1987) sold millions of copies. Lawyers working in the corporate culture of the 1980s lawyers were burning out, and Turow’s success suggested there was another way for them to make money.

And so on to John Grisham and many others. The lawyer-writer is now such a phenomenon that writing schools have sprung up especially for them. “Wouldn’t You Rather Be a Published Novelist?” says the advertising, promising that a dull legal career can be turned into a bestseller. You can tell lawyers run the course, as the sessions on “Legal, Contractual, Copyright and IP Issues” are longer than the ones on narrative craft.

England and Australia have produced fewer lawyers turned writers. In Australia there is Beasley, High Court Judge Ian Callinan, and popular writer Matthew Reilly. Most notable in England is John Galsworthy’s fiction of the 1920s, plus contemporary writers John Mortimer (of ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ fame), and Alexander McCall Smith, whose No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency stories are hugely popular.

But the Americans have it. Marcel Berlins, writing in The Guardian, offers a possible reason why: Lawspeak, which encourages lawyers to write passive, convoluted sentences and horrible dialogue.

“In contrast,” he says. “American lawyer still speak in understandable American.”

Perhaps the ability to use simple language is the reason why Beasley has been so successful. He speaks colloquial English, peppered with the odd four-letter word. He also has the lawyer’s ability to pin down the exact meaning of a word. When asked about lawyer burnout, he pauses.

“Burnout is too strong,” he says. “There are a few that are pretty tired.”

Are they cynical, perhaps?

“Cynicism is too strong a word,” he says, going on to explain that cynicism can mean different things to different people and then exploring some of the word’s possibilities.

He’s more forthright when explaining why he writes. “My work is commercial and it’s pretty bloody dull – I have to use my imagination.”

The other way round

What about people who start out as novelists? Do they ever abandon the imaginative life in favour of a law career? Eighteenth century playwright Henry Fielding found out the hard way that writing was a certain road to poverty. After the Lord Chamberlain censored his satirical play The Historical Register for 1736, he went into the law.

After which he wrote his greatest works, including the bestseller Tom Jones (1749). It seems these legal types just can’t stop themselves.

Case closed.

This originally appeared in Good Reading magazine. I can’t actually remember when, but it must have been about 2005. My biggest memory of doing this story was going to a set of legal chambers in Sydney, and noticing that the foyer was dominated by a cash machine. The warning was clear: don’t enter here unless your wallet is full!

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