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I Loved the Stories

Below is a guest post by my friend and fellow writer Kay Henden. We met at the 2013 Historical Novel Society Conference in Florida and hit it off right away. Kay is also a lawyer, and I was thrilled to have her as a beta reader for Bluebeard’s Mistress. She caught some early gaffes I made with my lawyer protagonist, for which I’m very grateful! I hope you enjoy Kay’s story.
I got into law because I loved the stories.
When I got out of college I wanted to go on for an advanced degree, and I debated whether I should get an MBA or a JD (that’s ‘Juris Doctor’, not ‘juvenile delinquent’). I decided to take a few courses in both and see which one I liked better.
Business administration was full of dry facts and tables of numbers, pages of charts and endless statistics. In contrast, law was full of stories, whole books full of true stories about unbelievable situations people had gotten themselves into.
I was hooked.
For the uninitiated, our system of justice in the U.S. is what’s called ‘common law’. It’s derived from the English system, and it works something like this (much simplified, of course).
The whole process starts when Congress (or the state legislature) passes a law that’s supposed to govern a given area of human activity. For example, ‘Yo-yos must be manufactured out of harmless materials.” Simple enough, right?
But— once this law gets out into the real world, all sorts of weird things crop up. A toy manufacturer makes yo-yos out of wood and Little Johnny gets splinters. The case goes to court, and the judge decides that wood is, in and of itself, harmless. It was Johnny’s attempt to eat the yo-yo that caused the problem. This decision is published for the whole world to see.
The next time somebody has a problem with wooden yo-yos, they go looking through the law books for a similar case, and they come across Johnny’s. They put a reference to Johnny’s case in their submission to the court, saying ‘See here, Judge— this other judge ruled that wood is harmless for making yo-yos, so you should rule the same way.”
Eventually there is a whole string of cases deciding which materials are ‘harmless’ under the law, each of which can be useful to one side or the other in a new case. What law students study are very famous cases referred to over and over again in legal submissions to illustrate a given point of law.
Stories, in other words.
Lawyers usually wind up specializing in a limited area, like criminal law or contract law or estate planning. I wound up doing probate and trust work, dealing with the transfer of property on death. To see my fellow man at his best— and his worst! — was endlessly fascinating. I didn’t just get to read stories about conflict and crisis, about grudge fights and old rifts, about villainy and heroism. I got to participate in all of those, day after day, year after year.
The inspiration of kids raised with ample love but modest means, who learned as adults that their parents had been multimillionaires the whole time. The excitement of a fistfight that erupted in my office over ownership of a nude painting portraying the decedent’s wife. The mystery of a husband and wife who vanished without a trace while flying from Arizona to California. The tragedy of a woman who died alone in her home, surrounded by white-wine bottles filled with straight gin. For forty years the stories were endlessly captivating, the people enthralling. Sad or happy, violent or tender, humorous or bitter— they were all very, very real.
I’m retired now, and people sometimes ask if I’m going to write my memoirs, put all of these wonderful stories down on paper. The answer is no. It would be disrespectful, I think. I was entrusted with my clients’ innermost family secrets, and I will take them to the grave with me. But when people ask what I liked best about practicing law, I have to tell them…
It was the stories.
Kay Henden (who also writes as Ellen Keigh) is an attorney/educator turned novelist, an avid amateur historian, and a peripatetic researcher. You can find her at and on Twitter @EllenKeigh


  1. MH

    Interesting. I wonder what other professions are like this? Maybe being a doctor – one would hear lots of interesting stories. Not dentistry because one wouldn’t hear many intelligible stories when hands are in the patient’s mouth. Teaching. Anything to do with travelling. Probably not engineering or computers…

  2. Clarissa Harwood

    Thanks for this informative post, Kay! I seriously considered going to law school when I was trying to decide on a career, and I’m sure I would have been fascinated by the stories too.
    MH, I’m not sure I agree about dentistry. My dentist has heard lots of stories from me about the weird stuff I’ve thought about (hallucinated?) while on nitrous oxide! I just had to wait until he took his hands out of my mouth. 🙂

  3. JT

    I’ve never thought about the stories in all those pages of law-related text in massive books, sitting in some library. I’ve always thought of law as a rather boring subject. I see this in a new light now.

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