Ireland’s other Law Library

The professions of writer and lawyer share lots of similarities so it is perhaps no surprise that so many Irish lawyers venture into fiction. Sarah Gilmartin hears the evidence

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” This harsh sentencing from Shakespeare in Henry VI is one of many references to the legal profession in the Bard’s work. From the courtroom dramas of The Merchant of Venice, to issues of morality in Measure for Measure, to Hamlet’s bitter jokes about English jurisprudence, Shakespeare understood the dramatic potential of the law.

The professions of writer and lawyer share many similarities. A skill for storytelling, a love of language, the ability to find the right words to convey an important message. Themes of justice, social issues, power and greed are common to both. Plots of murder, rape, criminal activity and all-round reckless behaviour take centre stage in real-life courtrooms and their fictional counterparts.

The crossover between the professions is age-old, with writers such as Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, Erle Stanley Gardner and Franz Kafka all studying or practicing law, to varying degrees of success, before establishing themselves as writers.

Law school dropout Harper Lee used her legal knowledge to win a Pulitzer for To Kill a Mockingbird, creating in the process literature’s best-loved lawyer, Atticus Finch. (Recent slights on his reputation notwithstanding).

In contemporary fiction, American authors John Grisham and Scott Turow are perennial bestsellers, attracting millions of readers across the world with their crime-based novels. Grisham published his first novel, A Time to Kill, in 1989, and has gone on to write almost 40 more. In Britain, the barrister John Mortimer’s bestselling Rumpole of the Bailey series was inspired by his father, another barrister.

Ireland has its fair share of legal eagles who have turned their hands to fiction. Eoin McNamee studied law before his bestselling novel Resurrection Man set him on a literary course. Adrian McKinty took a similar route, reading law at the University of Warwick before becoming an English teacher and subsequently turning his love of books into a full-time career. Crime author Jane Casey, of the award-winning Maeve Kerrigan series, studied English at Oxford but has easy access to legal knowledge through her criminal barrister husband.

In recent years a number of high-profile figures in Irish law have written books. High Court judge Brian Cregan wrote Parnell – A Novel in 2013 based on the life of Charles Stewart Parnell and told through the eyes of a fictional secretary, James Harrison. Supreme Court justice Adrian Hardiman has written extensively on the depiction of criminal law in the works of James Joyce. Senior counsels Patrick Marrinan, John O'Donnell, Henry Murphy and Conor Bowman have all penned works of fiction.

Danielle McLaughlin, author of the acclaimed short story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets, abandoned her career as a solicitor to write. In an interview with The Irish Times last Saturday, she suggested that both professions are all about telling stories.

“I really liked working as a lawyer, and I loved the side of it that was working with words,” she said. “It was all about use of words – using words creatively – and stories, because you get amazing stories that clients would bring you about their lives. The nuances and the tone, you’d have to watch that language so much. I actually find a huge amount of similarities between the two.”

The mot juste

Dublin-based barrister John O’Donnell has published three acclaimed collections of poetry. He says it’s no surprise that lawyers are drawn to writing, with both professions constantly searching for “precisely the right word, the ‘mot juste’. It’s not just parsing and analysing the meaning of dusty old statutes. A witness agreeing to a carefully nuanced description of an incident in cross-examination by a lawyer may subtly change the direction and outcome of a case.

“A barrister’s job in presenting a case is to tell his or her client’s story. The lawyer will try to mould and shape the story so that the client is shown in the most sympathetic light. Narrative is important, and you can’t afford to lose your audience.”

The latest senior counsel to join the literary ranks is Michael O’Higgins, whose debut novel Snapshots is published this month by New Island. Set in 1980s Dublin, the story is centred on the brutal murder of a prison officer. O’Higgins began writing the book in 2007, before discarding three-quarters of it and starting afresh in 2012: “The story as it is published now came together quite quickly. I didn’t know what I was doing, that’s why it took so long, but I was prepared to be patient and fairly dogged.”

Before being called to the Bar in 1988, O’Higgins worked as a journalist for Magill and Hot Press. He always had ambitions to write a novel and says his background in both careers has stood to him: “It’s helped me develop a forensic nose. It enables you to harness material and present it coherently. It’s creative in the sense that it’s a challenge to make the most of what you’ve got.”

But there are drawbacks to the legal frame of mind too. “Writing fiction is about exercising imagination,” says O’Higgins. “As a lawyer you’re confined to the material at hand. That stifles imagination. Being a criminal lawyer gives you insights into situations, but they’re artificial. We see things in a very controlled and sanitised environment. I had to work really hard on the courtroom scenes to get them to gel.”

Sense of justice

Declan Burke, a crime author and critic for this paper, credits an “ingrained sense of justice” as the reason lawyers turn to fiction. Listing the likes of Grisham, Gardner and Mortimer, Burke also highlights contemporary American authors Lisa Scottoline and Linda Fairstein, and the Norwegian writer Anne Holt, who served as her country’s justice minister for a period.

Another significant writer, from an Irish perspective, is the lawyer and former Fine Gael politician John Kelly. "His posthumous novel The Polling of the Dead (1993) is a terrific book," says Burke, whose crime fiction website Crime Always Pays notes other more recent author-lawyers with an Irish background such as Steve Kavanagh, Geraldine McMenamin, Ronan O'Brien and William Ryan.

Andrea Carter is another Irish barrister who has recently published a debut novel. A murder mystery story set on Inishowen, Death at Whitewater Church is the first in a series of novels. Practising as a solicitor in Inishowen before transferring to the Bar in 2005, Carter says the idea of a lawyer as a keeper of secrets is what inspired her to write fiction.

“A bit like a priest in a confessional, this concept has always fascinated me, so it seemed an ideal basis for a crime series,” she says. “As a lawyer I’d been writing professionally for two decades. This can be an advantage and a disadvantage when moving into fiction. Lawyers use great precision in language, but they use language that is tried and tested and they don’t take risks. You have to remind yourself that risks are expected of you in fiction.”

Carter, who took a leave of absence to do an MFA in UCD in 2013, says the professional discipline acquired from her legal training has been invaluable: “I’ve been self-employed since I was 27, firstly as a solicitor and then as a barrister, and I treat writing like a full-time job. Deadlines scare me so I treat them seriously. For a lawyer, a statute-barred claim is a serious problem. If I’m contracted to write a book, I write it.”

O’Donnell, who won the Hennessy Prize for Emerging Fiction in 2013 for his short story Shelley, tries to keep his writing and legal careers separate. Currently working towards a debut collection, his shortlisted story Promise featured in the third Hennessy anthology, published by New Island earlier this year.

“I would never write stories or poems at work,” he says. “Like most people who have ‘day jobs’, my head is in a different space when I write, and a different time as well – 6.30 am, before the phones and the emails begin. But though my legal life is separate from my writing life, inevitably bits of what I’ve seen as a barrister work their way by a kind of osmosis into my stories.

“Like lawyers, writers are often watchful of the careers of colleagues, and sometimes envious of their perceived successes, but they are also generous and loyal to colleagues who find themselves in difficulty. A writer’s profession is far more solitary than a lawyer’s, but they both also appear to enjoy each other’s company, especially in what might best be described as ‘convivial surroundings’.”

Literary fiction

As O'Donnell's poetry and short fiction attests to, not all lawyers who write fiction go down the crime series route. Booker nominees Joseph O'Neill and Donal Ryan both studied law before writing literary fiction, with O'Neill choosing law over English literature at Cambridge because "literature was too precious" and he wanted to keep it as a beloved pastime.

Solicitor Jennifer Burke got her break as a writer through a competition on TV3’s Ireland AM. Her debut novel The Secret Son was published by Poolbeg’s literary imprint Ward River in 2013. While the book was inspired by the legal battles over estates that Burke witnessed as a solicitor, she says her main motivation for writing was an interest in character.

“I was conscious that I didn’t want to write procedural, court-based dramas,” says Burke, who now lives in London and works as a legal advisor to the UK government’s department of energy. “More interesting to me are the personal interactions of my characters. I purposefully did not incorporate any legality into my second novel Levi’s Gift. It is important to me that I am known not as a writer of legal books, but of character-driven stories.”

Burke takes her writing seriously, having realised a few years back that the only way to write a novel with a full-time job was to seize any available opportunity: “Like a thief, I snatched hours, or only minutes, anytime I could, and watched my word count slowly rise.” In an ideal world would she give up the day-job and only write fiction?

“I have no hesitation in saying that I would give up my day job if I could make a living writing full time,” she says. “I enjoy the type of public law I’m currently practicing, but writing is my real passion.”

For O’Higgins, the answer is less clear cut: “I like my work most of the time. It’s stimulating and it’s also very social. I’m fairly resourceful and not afraid of my own company, but writing is a very solitary experience and I’d worry that I’d get lonely. I think it’s a good idea for people to change career a couple of times. It’s an opportunity to reinvent oneself but it takes courage too.”

For those lawyers thinking of making the leap to fiction, Shakespeare’s words are once again prescient. “Good counsellors lack no clients,” says Pompey in Measure for Measure. For fiction, the same rules apply.