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Is the Practice of Law a Good Background for Fiction Writing?

Below is a second guest post by my friend and fellow writer Kay Henden (see “I Loved the Stories,” posted Jan. 2, 2015). 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!
Is the practice of law a good background for fiction writing?
Well, yes. And no.
“No”, if you’re looking at the intellectual part of the legal profession, especially legal writing. Legal writing is the antithesis of creative writing. There’s nothing like rigid structure to destroy spontaneity.
Worse, there is always an edge of anxiety in legal writing, the fear that somehow, someway, you won’t be perfectly clear. Lawyers lard noun upon noun, verb upon verb, trying to be certain they have left nothing out— no matter how insignificant it may seem. Because someday that may be a critical issue.
Consider the following sentence:
“The Trust shall keep, save, hold harmless, defend and indemnify the Trustee from any and all liability, actions, proceedings, claims, demands, losses, outlays, damages, or expenses, including legal fees and reasonable costs associated with such actions or with enforcement of this provision, which Trustee may in any way incur in consequence of or arising in any way out of any acts or omissions of Trustee taken at the direction of the Investment Counsel, including but not limited to retention of property, investment or failure to invest funds, purchase or failure to purchase property, lease or failure to lease real property, or taking or failure to take any other action relating to Trust assets.”
Now, compare that sentence with this one:
“Call me Ishmael.”
In legal writing you are building something static, one labored brick at a time. In literature you are growing something organic, with grace and flow and rhythm and meaning.
In legal writing ambiguity is the enemy, to be beaten back at all costs. In literature ambiguity is the essence, to be nurtured and interleaved layer upon layer until a rich and intricate complexity emerges.
In legal writing you march. In literature you waltz. Or tango. Or foxtrot. Or polka.
So no, legal writing doesn’t help a whit when you’re writing fiction.
On the other hand…
Legal writing doesn’t actually deal with the law, much as it would like to think it does. It deals with people, and the fundamental premise of every legal document is that people will try to do the right thing, if only they know what it is. That all problems can be avoided if only everyone understands clearly what their rights and responsibilities are.
As Charles Dickens so eloquently put it over 150 years ago, “If the law supposes that, the law is an ass.”
The legal system is a wild kaleidoscope of conflicting and contradictory drives and motives, bad luck and good fortune, unbreakable rules that nobody follows and unshakeable tradition that nobody honors. And all of this insanely messy activity is carried out with the utmost in lugubrious pomposity.
I worked for a time as a mediator, trying to resolve cases before they hit the trial stage. I’ve dealt with a lawsuit where the two sides battled fiercely for months over interpretation of a clause in a contract, only to discover that they had been working from two different versions of the document. I’ve handled a case where the two parties had resolved their differences years before, but didn’t know how to tell their lawyers to drop the lawsuit. I’ve seen tens of thousands of dollars spent on a mêlée over a pair of silver-plate candlesticks.
The reality of the legal system— as opposed to its self-image— is a marvelous tapestry of nitty-gritty life, the ideal training ground for a fledgling writer.
So— is legal training a good background for writing? You be the judge.
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

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