How Being An Attorney Helped Me Become A Writer

There's more overlap than you might expect between legal profession and the skills required to become a writer. Author Reyna Marder Gentin discusses the lessons she learned practicing law that she's been able to apply in her writing.
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There's more overlap than you might expect between legal profession and the skills required to become a writer. Author Reyna Marder Gentin discusses the lessons she learned practicing law that she's been able to apply in her writing.

After my first year of law school, one of my classmates dropped out to write a novel. While I admired her, it wasn’t my dream to be a writer, yet. I wanted to be a lawyer. And the lessons I learned in the 23 years that I practiced law were invaluable in my transition to becoming a writer. Here are a few:

1. Be precise in your language and don’t let your message get lost in your words.

My first job was as a litigation associate at a venerable white-shoe law firm in New York City. Although I ultimately chose a different path, the way the attorneys practiced law there was impeccable. No legal document left the office without several lawyers reviewing the text for accuracy, tone, and intent, and then paring the language down even further so that nothing extraneous would cloud the meaning and invite problems down the line. I was trained to consider the impact of every word. When you write creatively, there are different goals—you are aiming not just for clarity but also for beauty. But if your message gets lost in aesthetics, there’s no retrieving it.

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2. Look at things from multiple angles.

For 18 years I worked in a public defender’s office. Nothing is more critical to preparing a defense than trying to see the situation from different vantage points and anticipating what the prosecution may throw at you next. The same is true in your writing. You may be convinced that your character’s arc is fixed: she can only react one way or say certain things or solve her problem by taking a particular course of action. But if you don’t assess other possibilities, you may miss a more inventive storyline and risk leaving your writing predictable and flat. Not every possible scenario will be plausible, but if you take a step back and consider your options, you may discover a more compelling truth.

3. Imbue yourself with confidence even when you lack it (and a corollary: it’s fine to use big words if you know what they mean.)

The best legal job I ever had was clerking for a federal judge. I was responsible for writing the first draft of the rulings he would ultimately issue to the litigants. I lost sleep over the first case I was assigned, struggling to figure out the correct outcome. The draft I handed in to the judge reflected my own indecision—the writing was hedged and weak. The judge gently admonished me that the court must always project confidence and authority. He returned my draft with my wishy-washy words crossed out and the following written in: “The Court has reached the inexorable conclusion that . . .” I had to look up inexorable (it means unavoidable), but I learned a valuable lesson. Sometimes actual confidence will flow from appearing confident. A reader wants to feel she is in good hands. If you write with confidence and present yourself as a serious person, the reader will feel safe with you. And it’s fine to use big words if you use them correctly.

4. Know the players and where you fit in, and figure out when it’s time to change the rules.

The law, like most human endeavors, is hierarchical. As a young attorney, you have supervisors reviewing your work and doling out assignments. As you progress to a more senior position, you have more interaction with the client, which involves a different set of skills. At the top, in some incarnation or other, will be the judge—the person to whom you must show great deference and who will ultimately decide whether you win or lose. Your success in navigating the system will depend on being savvy and understanding how to plug in. The same is true with your writing. You can write solely for the inherent pleasure, and hopefully that will always remain with you. But if you don’t figure out how to interact with fellow writers, editors, agents, publishers, publicists and readers—you won’t get past writing only for yourself. At some point, if the system isn’t working for you, it’s okay to change the rules—hire your own editor, or go without an agent or a traditional publisher. Just get in front of the judge.

5. Don’t be afraid to start over.

I once took a legal job that seemed ideal—I was well qualified, and it was prestigious and high paying. As soon as I started, I realized I had made a mistake. I quit after one month, with nothing on the horizon. Guess what? It wasn’t a tragedy. I was able to start over. If you are working on a project and you realize it isn’t working, no matter how far in you are, it’s okay to abandon it. You will live to write another day.

Several years after I graduated, I read my classmate’s novel. It was beautiful and evocative, and I admired her talent. Maybe she’ll read my novel too.

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