“I’m not a novelist with a law degree,” I once told an interviewer. “I’m a lawyer who writes novels.” The distinction seemed clearer then than it does now. Lawyers and novelists both create storylines in order to make baffling situations coherent.
Michael A. Bowen, Harvard 1976 cum laude, is a retired partner and litigation lawyer with Foley & Lardner LLP. His practice was focused on commercial litigation and arbitration at the trial and appellate levels. Mike is an accomplished novelist, having published 16 such works since 1987. His next crime novel, Damage Control, is scheduled for publication in August by Poisoned Pen Press.
In 1965 I read in Time that Cravath, Swain & Moore had raised the starting salary for associates from $5,000 to $15,000 per year. That didn’t influence my career plans at all. I’d known since I was nine – since watching my third or fourth episode of Perry Mason – that I wanted to be a lawyer. The only other job I seriously considered was President of the United States, and I figured that, like Lincoln, I could use law as a stepping stone to that one.
I didn’t think about Time’sreport again until the late 1980s. When I began practicing in 1976, the lawyers I encountered balanced personal and professional satisfaction against income maximization as carefully as they did gin against tonic in their summer evening cocktails. They – by then, we – sacrificed potential income to handle unremunerative but interesting cases and to pursue interests outside of law, from coaching Little League to hunting and fishing to (in my case) dabbling in politics and writing books. Most of us ended up canted toward the income end of the continuum but within shouting distance of the middle.
As the ‘80s ground on, though, firms seemed to move farther and farther toward maximizing income. Firm management became more corporate, and more lawyers morphed into managers. Lawyers were amused when I told them my business plan was to sit at my desk and wait for the phone to ring; managers, not so much. Professional satisfaction got to be like tenderloin at partner lunches – something that was nice to have as long as it didn’t dent profit-per-partner too much.
Whether you’re a lawyer
or a novelist, when you
search for the truth, every
once in a while you find
it – and then you have to
decide what you’re going to
do about it.
The third time a consultant described our practice in terms of “brands,” “products,” and “credentializing,” a troubling storyline came to me. I imagined several thousand 1965-era adolescents who weren’t attracted to the practice of law per seaiming for law school because the same Time article I’d read convinced them that they’d make more money as lawyers than as stockbrokers, marketing analysts, or underwriters. If more and more people running law firms were lawyers not because they loved law but because, for them, that’s where the money was, that might explain the consultants and their semi-literate MBA-speak.
For neither novelists nor lawyers are storylines something you just make up. Fiction is a search for truth liberated from the tyranny of fact; law is a search for truth constrained by fact (one hopes). Whether you’re a lawyer or a novelist, when you search for the truth, every once in a while you find it – and then you have to decide what you’re going to do about it.
What I decided to do about the truth I’d found was to stay exactly where I was – near the middle of my personal continuum. That decision worked for both the lawyer and the novelist.