I went to law school for bad reasons. I’d finished my M.F.A. and run through my Stegner Fellowship without landing a book contract or a teaching job, and I needed cover: more time to write, and the possibility of making a living at the end of it. I’d read John Grisham, Scott Turow, and Robert Traver, and had a foolish idea I’d learn the law, use what I’d learned to write successful legal thrillers, and never have to worry about practicing. There was also an element of irrational bargaining. Maybe if I offered up what was most important—my goal of being a full-time writer—the universe would take notice and give me what I really wanted.
I had romantic ideas of becoming a public defender, the one job in the law that definitely doesn’t pay. (I’d have gone that route, and been very happy in it, I think, but the timing didn’t cooperate, and I ended up working in employment law, a field that similarly involves representing individuals against forces with outsize power to wreak havoc on their lives). My great good fortune in law school was discovering a more passionate engagement with criminal law than I’d any right to expect, given my conflicted motivations. At the time, this was a far luckier break than a publishing contract could have been. If I hadn’t first found a passion for practicing law, my idea of writing legal thrillers would have been a nonstarter. You can’t write cynically in exploitation of a subject that bores you and expect readers to be interested.
Working as a student practitioner for the public defender’s office in San Francisco’s criminal courtrooms, I witnessed what seemed to me the great issues of our day powerfully dramatized in a forum that shares much with the theatrical stage. In court, I was lucky to find what I’d thought I was looking for, a new form in which to tell the stories I’d come to care about telling so that readers might actually want to read them. I also found a cause to which I might devote myself with tangible results, while making a positive difference for others. I was saved from the banality of the semiautobiographical “literary” fiction I’d previously attempted. And I’d found people who needed my help, in a profession that allowed me to channel my storytelling impulse in a way I hadn’t realized was possible.
Trying cases before juries has taught me vital lessons for writing fiction. I’ve learned to write directly to the reader in the same way I’ve learned to address my courtroom performance directly to jurors, imagining myself from their perspectives to gauge the impact of everything I say and do. On the flip side, my experience writing novels has been a considerable asset to me in the courtroom, where the best storyteller usually wins.
I went to law school because I thought, naïvely but I hope correctly, that knowing the law would help me write convincing legal thrillers. I’m glad to say that life has come full circle, that I now write legal thrillers because I’m stimulated, fascinated, and engaged by the practice of law.
Lachlan Smith is the Shamus Award winning author of the Leo Maxwell series of legal thrillers from Grove/Atlantic’s Mysterious imprint. Fox Is Framed, the third book in the series, comes out on April 7.