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Interview: Scott Turow: From Law to Best-Selling Novels

Scottturow Scott Turow is the author of seven best-selling novels: Presumed Innocent (1987), The Burden of Proof (1990), Pleading Guilty (1993), The Laws of Our Fathers (1996), Personal Injuries (1999) and Reversible Errors (2002). One L - a non-fiction account of Turow's experiences in his first year at Harvard Law School - is on the reading list of nearly every law school student.

In a recent interview with JD Bliss, Turow shared that he dreamed of becoming a novelist since he was 11 years old.  He diligently pursued this goal even after embarking on his legal career, taking every opportunity to write and practice his craft even if it was only a paragraph or two while commuting by train to his first day job at the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago.

Having achieved enormous success as a writer, what is less well known is that Turow continues to practice white collar criminal defense law at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal (albeit on a reduced schedule from his earlier years). Turow finds that law nourishes his imagination and engages the side of him that sees law as an instrument for change and reform.

See our interview with Turow below.

JD Bliss: After graduating from Amherst College in 1970, you attended the Stanford University Creative Writing Center from 1970-1972, and then taught Creative Writing at Stanford from 1972-1975.  Was your initial career ambition to be a writer and/or teacher?

Turow: My dream was to be a novelist from the time I was 11 or 12 years old. Teaching was simply a way to make a living. 

JDB: What events, personal experiences, etc. motivated you to apply to law school and to pursue a career as a lawyer?

Turow: There were a couple of considerations. One, I'd concluded that I was personally not really cut out for academic life. This is not to disparage people who are good at it, but I was just there for the paycheck.

Second, I was far more interested in the law than I expected. My father was a doctor, and as I say, he hated lawyers, long before that was fashionable for doctors. I had little exposure to law until my college roommates went to law school and started practice. By then I found that I was making friends with lawyers in San Francisco. It seemed I was far more interested in law than academic English.

JDB: What inspired you to write One L while at Harvard Law School? Were the creative writing skills you developed while studying and teaching at Stanford instrumental to the conception and success of One L and your other novels? 

Turow: I actually went to law school with a contract to write the book. It was something of an accident. When I decided to go to law school, I told my agent that I'd noticed that there wasn't a good non-fiction account of student life. She mentioned my suggestion to an editor, Ned Chase, and a contract quickly followed.

When One L appeared, I heard many of my classmates mutter, 'I should have done that,' which irritated me to no end. I'd spent 5 years at Stanford honing my craft as a writer. I don't think One L could ever have been written without that background.

JDB: After graduating Harvard Law School, you worked as an Assistant United States Attorney in Chicago from 1978 to 1986. Why did you choose to start your legal career in the public sector as a prosecutor instead of as an associate at a private firm? Why did you then join Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal in 1986 as a white collar criminal defense attorney? 

Turow: Law school was a surprising choice for me, in the anti-establishment days of the early 70's. But that was as far as I could go. Corporate practice was simply anathema. The U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago had become an instrument of reform here, and I wanted to be a part of that. Obviously, my perspectives changed over the 8 years I was a prosecutor. I began to realize that defense lawyers served an important Constitutional function, and with two young children, the paycheck in the private sector was attractive. I left because it was time to make a change, and I could not have picked better among the firms that offered me a job. 

JDB: One L was published in 1977. Presumed Innocent was published in 1987. Why did you stop writing for so long after publishing One L, and what motivated you to resume writing? Once you resumed, how did you find the time to write a novel while working full time as a lawyer? 

Turow: I never stopped writing. My promise to myself when I went to law school was that I would continue. When I started as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, I used to write on the morning commuter train. It was sometimes no more than a paragraph a day, but it kept the candle burning. The plot of Presumed Innocent suggested itself to me over a number of years. I started the book based on experiences I had in the Suffolk County DA's office, which had been my clinical placement in the trial practice class taught by Garry Bellow at Harvard. But that took me only about 120 pages into the book that ultimately resulted. I took two years off [from writing Presumed Innocent] and wrote other things while I figured out the rest of the plot.

I finished Presumed Innocent in the summer between the U.S. Attorney's office and my start at Sonnenschein. I never would have done that without my wife's encouragement.

JDB: After Presumed Innocent became a best seller, why did you continue to work as a defense attorney at Sonnenschein instead of devoting yourself full time to writing? What is it about practicing law that motivates you to continue working as a lawyer even after you have achieved enormous success as a writer?

Turow: I continued in practice mainly on the theory that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Every writer needs something else to do. I started practicing part time in 1989, and have tapered off some over the years, but I still find that practice nourishes my imagination and, more importantly, feeds the part of me that was so deeply engaged with the law that I had to go to law school.

JDB: Given what we assume is a busy schedule as a best-selling author and lawyer at a major law firm, what is your approach to balancing work with family and personal interests? 

Turow: I work odd hours. A lot of time at night. Write in the morning. Do law stuff in the afternoon. Correspondence at night. I'm not sure my family would enthusiastically endorse the idea that my life has been balanced, but it was a rare evening when I was not home for dinner.

JDB: What advice would you give to lawyers who aspire to become novelists? 

Turow: Write. There is no substitute for practice. Same answer to that old joke about how do you get to Carnegie Hall: "Practice, Practice, Practice."

JDB: What advice would you give to lawyers who are unhappy with their current career path and are considering alternatives – whether in law or outside of law? 

Turow: I don't think a legal education is a mistake for anybody, but obviously practice is not for everyone. If law school interested you, then I'd encourage the disenchanted to try another legal milieu before giving up. Public sector - non profit - small firm if you're in a big firm. That kind of thing. But I know lots of people who started practicing and by now have become successful in many other endeavors - two woodworkers, a sculptor, dozens of business folks, and the owner of a chain of basketball courts, not to mention several novelists. Few of them regret law school.

Read more about Scott Turow's background and books on his site: http://www.scottturow.com.

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Scott Turow is the author of seven best-selling novels: Presumed Innocent (1987), The Burden of Proof (1990), Pleading Guilty (1993), The Laws of Our Fathers (1996), Personal Injuries (1999) and Reversible Errors (2002). One L - a non-fiction account o... [Read More]

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