The Writers: JDs Penning Their Stories

Monica McCarty, JD ’92, got the idea for her steamy historical romances—the covers of The Chief, The Hawk, and others feature guys stripped to the waist, with ripped abs and strong jaws—in her Comparative Legal History class. She wrote a paper on the Scottish clan system and feudalism—and her eight-book Highland Guard series was born. “I practiced law for only a couple years,” says McCarty, now a New York Times best-selling author. “Litigator to romance writer might seem like polar opposite career choices, but much of what I loved about practicing law is the same thing I love about being a novelist: the research and the writing.” Her new Lost Platoon series follows SEAL Team Nine through covert ops and plenty of sexy twists as a tough soldier meets a feminist environmental activist. Entertainment Weekly named Going Dark one of the 10 best romance novels of 2017. McCarty says writing legal prose helped her with writing fiction. “I learned the importance of presenting the case with clear and compelling language, moving through a story or brief with a good arc and pace, knowing when and how to present the ‘facts,’ how to build your case and, hopefully, give readers something that doesn’t put them to sleep.”

One of the few novels actually set at Stanford Law is Legally Blonde, Amanda Brown Chang’s 2001 farce involving a sorority girl with more going on than meets the eye. At Crothers Hall, her dorm room was less than half the size of her walk-in closet at home. The movie version shifted the venue to Harvard.

“Law school was the place I realized that I had the sincerity and the passion to tell stories,” says Brown Chang, who left Stanford Law in 1996 after two years to write her first novel.

Lawyers deal in facts and the hard, textual reality of contracts and pleadings. The best add creativity to the mix, breaking new trails within the boundaries of statutes and case law. Some Stanford Law School graduates have found that their legal training goes hand-in-hand with writing fiction.

Amy P. Knight’s Lost, Almost begins with news of the 1945 A-bomb attack on Hiroshima as reported on the radio and heard at the breakfast table by budding physicist Adam Brooks. “The bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of TNT,” the announcer says, “… a harnessing of the basic power of the universe.” Knight, JD ’12, published her book of eight linked stories in 2017 to positive reviews: One said she was “like a mad scientist in the lab of human insight.”

Knight, whose novel won the Engine Books Fiction Prize, works as a Tucson, Arizona, criminal defense lawyer representing Mexican nationals facing U.S. death sentences. She also handles felony appeals and has appeared before the Arizona Supreme Court. She now snatches an hour most mornings to work on her second novel.

“Part of what makes Stanford Law the great place it is, yielding the great lawyers it does, is that it is demanding,” she says. “That’s good training for the hard work of writing a novel, where no one actually cares if you get it done or not.”

“Anyone could teach the basic requirements and forms of legal writing, but the teachers I encountered did more than that. They encouraged us to find every possible way to make our work better and more persuasive.”

— Amy P. Knight, JD ’12, author of Lost, Almost

There’s Stanford’s emphasis on the craft of writing itself, of course. “I certainly was taught carefully and well by my Legal Research and Writing instructor in my first quarter,” Knight says. “Anyone could teach the basic requirements and forms of legal writing, but the teachers I encountered did more than that. They encouraged us to find every possible way to make our work better and more persuasive.

“Add this to all the pro bono projects the school supports and the recognition it provides for students who engage in service and you have a strong foundation for the kinds of lawyers who are not just skilled professionals but thoughtful human beings,” says Knight.

Indeed, SLS encourages students to bridge law and the arts by offering a course titled Writing Workshop: Law and Creativity. It has been taught since 2009 by lecturer Viola Canales, a former O’Melveny & Myers lawyer and the author of the award-winning novel The Tequila Worm.

“Every student taking the course turns in a complete short story, novel chapter, or a piece of non-fiction as a final project,” Canales says.

Michele Campbell, JD ’89, found her work in law inspiring. “All first novels are said to be autobiographical, and I started out as a prosecutor, thus federal prosecutor Melanie Vargas was born,” says Campbell. Her legal thrillers—Most Wanted, The Finishing School, Cover-Up, and Notorious—star Vargas and were written by Campbell, under the pen name Michele Martinez. Published between 2005 and 2008 they mirror Campbell’s work in the Eastern District of New York, where she served as deputy chief of the narcotics unit, pursuing Thai warlords running heroin operations, leaders of Mexican cocaine cartels, and domestic drug retailers controlling neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. The series has won prizes and has been published in Spanish, German, Japanese, Russian, and Estonian. Says Campbell, “Melanie was an outgrowth of my early career. I’ve long seen a very clear pathway from my legal practice to writing crime fiction.”

The Writers: JDs Penning Their Stories
Illustration by: Jeffrey Decoster

Campbell later moved with her family to New England, taught criminal law at Vermont Law School, and switched fictional gears. Her latest books It’s Always the Husband and She Was the Quiet One, now written as Michele Campbell rather than under the pen name, feature crime amid her characters’ tangled interactions in dystopian academic settings. “What I’m writing now is more about relationships, which is where the crime genre is going,” she says. “It allows for a lot more in-depth character study. It’s not just the fingerprints on the gun anymore.” A new title, A Stranger on the Beach, is due in 2019.

“If you want a crime fiction career, you need to do one book a year, and that’s pretty intense,” she says. “The pressure is on, but from law school to practicing criminal law, I’m well trained in managing pressure.” She says there’s not much of Stanford Law School in her books, though one character in her Melanie Vargas thrillers is a graduate. “She’s the one with the even keel who never gets fazed by anything,” says Campbell.

Alafair Burke, JD ’94, also drew on her early work as a deputy district attorney. She has written two series of crime novels, each with a female protagonist: New York police detective Ellie Hatcher and Portland, Oregon, prosecutor Samantha Kincaid. In 2017 Burke was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Novel for The Ex, starring criminal defense lawyer Olivia Randall. Its follow-up, The Wife, channels the #MeToo movement; an Amazon Studios feature film adaptation is in the works.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many novelists are former lawyers and journalists,” says Burke, who now teaches at Hofstra Law in her spare time. “Both are trained to investigate and synthesize a set of complex facts and then weave them together into a compelling narrative. As a trial lawyer, you have to learn how to tell a story through a very unnatural structure—not from beginning, to middle, to end, but through the words of one witness at a time. That forces you to break down a story into its raw components and be able to put it back together in a strategic and dramatic way.”

Meg Gardiner Shreve, JD ’82 (BA ’79), who lives in Texas and writes thrillers as Meg Gardiner, no longer practices law but remains an inactive member of the California Bar. “Even before I started law school, I was writing fiction,” she says. “My first short story was published the summer after my first year.” Her latest novels Into the Black Nowhere and Unsub are psychological thrillers inspired, respectively, by serial killer Ted Bundy and San Francisco’s uncaught Zodiac Killer. About Into the Black Nowhere, Stephen King enthused, “Excellent. You know the drill, bookstore near you. Buy now, thank me later.”

The Writers: JDs Penning Their Stories 1
Jasmine Guillory, JD ’02, author of The Wedding Date (photo by: Gregg Segal)

“When I first attempted to write a novel, I filled it with lawyers, because I knew them, their world, and their work,” Gardiner says. “At first I wrote too much like a lawyer, attempting to shoehorn every element of a cause of action into the story, as though my manuscript would be judged by a professor or, well, a judge. Once I remembered I was writing fiction, I got a lot better at it.”

Others look far outside of law for inspiration in their writing. Jasmine Guillory, JD ’02, knew that an unexpected encounter was key to firing up a successful romantic comedy.

“It’s called ‘meet cute’ and it’s a big thing in rom coms,” she says. So to launch her debut novel The Wedding Date, published in January 2018, she contrived a mash-up of her mother’s terror of elevators and a visit Guillory once made to a friend staying at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel. And voilà! In her book the Fairmont’s elevator stalls long enough to kindle desire in her trapped protagonists: Alexa, the black chief of staff to Berkeley’s mayor, and Drew, a white pediatric surgeon from L.A.

And there’s a bit of racial tension. The wedding scenes involve an overwhelmingly white crowd and Alexa’s mild discomfort. “I’ve been the only black person in the room a few hundred times, and not just at Stanford,” says Guillory, who handles the racial material with a light touch. “It’s not the core of their conflict or of their attraction,” she says of Alexa and Drew. “I wanted to have a happy story about a black woman, but it didn’t make sense not to have racism come up.”

Guillory, now a contract attorney, started writing non-legal prose about eight years after joining Morrison & Foerster and an earlier clerkship in San Francisco with U.S. District Judge Susan Y. Illston, JD ’73. In the book’s acknowledgments, Guillory credits among others Pamela S. Karlan as an inspiration. Karlan, the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law and co-director of SLS’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, recalls her well. According to Karlan, “Jasmine was a breath of fresh air in the law school. But even if the couple of funny emails of hers that I’ve saved (now for 15+ years) were the extent of her comedic writing, she’d still be one of my favorites.”

“I’ve long seen a very clear pathway from my legal practice to writing crime fiction.”

— Michele Campbell, JD ’89, author of the best-selling Vargas Legal Thrillers

Matthew Lansburgh, JD ’97, published award-winning fiction last year, while working as a lawyer in New York City. His collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean, won the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 30th Annual Lambda Literary Award and the 2018 Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBTQ Fiction. His central character is a German immigrant named Heike who moves to the United States after World War II in search of a new life. Lansburgh’s stories, told from various characters’ points of view, trace Heike’s journey over the next several decades. Described by one reviewer as “one of fiction’s great bad mothers,” Heike is by turns funny, frustrating, endearing, and unhinged.

Lansburgh, who worked on the book for over a decade mostly while still working full time as a lawyer, says writing fiction served “as a good counterpoint to the stress” he often felt practicing corporate law.

After Stanford, Lansburgh joined Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and then worked in-house at Sony Music, Time Warner Cable, and The New York Public Library, where he was associate general counsel. While he worked at NYPL, he enrolled in NYU’s MFA program in creative writing where he studied Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Although Lansburgh feels it has, at times, been hard to juggle his legal career with his passion for writing, he says that recently he’s found a good balance. (He currently works three days a week at Hudson’s Bay Company as a director and senior counsel.) “Having time to write seriously while also supporting myself is a dream come true,” he says.  SL

John Roemer, a freelance journalist, was a staff writer for the San Francisco Daily Journal.