You're a lawyer, but are you a writer?

A man browses books after the opening of Birmingham Library in central England
A man browses books after the opening of Birmingham Library in central England September 3, 2013. REUTERS/Darren Staples

(Reuters) - International lawyer Gary Born made his mark as an author years ago, penning a three-volume, 4,250 page treatise on arbitration that’s regularly cited by high courts around the world.

Edifying, yes -- but what if you’re looking for a beach read?

The 67-year-old chair of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr’s international arbitration practice just got his first novel published by Histria Books -- a thriller featuring a beautiful young botanist, Nazi treasure, Russian thugs, machete fights, stolen planes and exploding ships.

“I love my day job,” Born told me. But since 1983, when he spent a gap year hitchhiking across Africa and the plot for “The File” first came to him, he’s also wanted to write a novel.

He’s not alone. The line of lawyers-turned-novelists dates back to Lit 101 mainstays like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Franz Kafka and Washington Irving.

In some ways, it may be a conceit of the profession that so many lawyers seem to harbor dreams of writing fiction. Lawyers are smart (or at least smart enough to pass the bar), they’re verbal, they deal in conflict – the central element of any story -- and writing is a key part of their job.

“There’s not a single book conference I’ve been to” without meeting fellow lawyer-authors, said Jasmine Guillory, a Stanford Law School graduate and one-time Morrison & Foerster associate whose eighth novel, “Drunk on Love,” was published in September by Penguin Random House. “There’s lots of us.”

Of course, the gap between thinking you can write a novel and actually getting paid to do so is sizeable.

During more than 15 years of practicing law, which also included a stint as a legal aid lawyer, Guillory told me that she picked up some transferable skills, like how to handle setbacks.

“As a lawyer, you get used to failure,” she said, noting the win-lose nature of litigation. Such thick skin is essential for writers when their manuscripts are (inevitably) rejected by some publishers.

Moreover, client demands and court-imposed deadlines meant cultivating the discipline to “sit down and get work done,” she said.

But the actual writing, which she squeezed in at lunch and in the evenings before becoming a full-time author?

The style “is very different,” said Guillory, whose New York Times bestselling books showcase professional Black women and their romantic relationships. “There was a lot I had to un-learn.”

To Lisa Scottoline, the author of 35 novels that have sold more than 30 million copies, according to publisher Penguin Random House, “the best legal writing is no different than the best regular writing – it’s clear and free of jargon,” she said.

“Lawyers come fully loaded with the skill set” to write fiction, Scottoline told me, including the ability to marshal information to tell a story, to “stand in front of a jury and say ‘Here are the facts. See them my way.’”

A 1981 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School (where she and Born were classmates), Scottoline joined Dechert as an associate after a one-year clerkship.

She quit the firm in 1986, and it took years of rejections (there’s that lawyerly thick skin) before she found a publisher in 1994 for her first novel, “Everywhere That Mary Went.”

Scottoline told me that a common theme in her work is the question “What is justice?” – or lack thereof.

“I loved practicing law, I loved the drama, the winning and losing and fighting and conflict,” she said. “Being a lawyer never leaves you.”

For Born, who is consistently ranked as one of the world’s top international arbitration practitioners, writing fiction offers a creative outlet removed from his legal practice – and indeed, not one of the main characters in “The File” is a lawyer.

Based in London, Born started writing on long-haul, pre-pandemic flights to Asia – a 13-hour block of time with “no phone ringing, no emails coming in,” he said. “I thought, ‘I could use this time to do something.’”

He's got another novel in the pipeline about an ex-mafia hitman, but Born nurses no aspirations of highbrow literature.

Rather, he said, his goal is to write novels that are "good, exciting fun."

UPDATE: This column has been updated regarding the number of novels Lisa Scottoline has written and her current publisher.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Thomson Reuters

Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at