Moreover, To Wit and Heretofore

by Heather Newton

The legal profession is full of closet writers. This may be because law school attracts verbally-gifted people who can’t support themselves with their undergraduate humanities degrees (that would be me).  Or it may be because the practice of law provides a wonderful window into the lives of others–the stories are there for the plucking and lawyers’ fingers begin to itch to write them down.

One problem these lawyer-writers have is that law school trains them to write terribly.  Budding lawyers who once wrote clear prose learn to muddle their writing with archaic legalese.  Instead of writing “we agree” a lawyer will write, “this agreement and release of liability is entered into and executed this the date set forth hereinbelow.”  (Is there even such a word as “hereinbelow”? My Spell Checker doesn’t think so).  Instead of writing “I represent John Doe” a lawyer will write “Please be advised that I represent John Doe.” Lawyers love to throw in random Latin phrases, and given a chance will insert footnotes into every document–something one doesn’t see very often in well-crafted fiction.  When I sit down to write fiction I have to remind myself to take off my lawyer hat and edit, edit, edit, removing any ridiculous legal words that I might have let slip in.

Another problem lawyers have is the all-consuming nature of the profession, which leaves little time or mental energy for writing for pleasure.

For years, as I was working to establish myself as an attorney, the only time I ever got any fiction writing done was on snowy days when I had to stay home because of the weather. This worked fine when I was writing short stories, but not when I decided to tackle a novel.  Writing a novel requires the ability to get back to the work on a regular basis–otherwise you forget what you’ve written and have to spend all of your allotted snow day refreshing your memory.  So several years ago I gave myself a gift. I decided that I would practice law Monday through Thursday, and write fiction on Fridays.  My novel, Under the Mercy Trees, got written in seven years worth of Fridays.

I believe that being a lawyer has made me a better writer.  From my work as an attorney I know what it is like to have a child taken away by Social Services, to be struck by lightning, to have one’s body wear out working at a manufacturing plant—all things that have shown up in my fiction.  And being a lawyer is rewarding.  My legal work has helped people in significant, tangible ways that my fiction writing can never match.

Still, I hope one day to be a writer who practices law, instead of a lawyer who writes.

Heather Newton’s debut novel, Under the Mercy Trees, published by HarperCollins, is now available. A long-time student in the Great Smokies Writing Program, she writes and practices law in Asheville.