More than a few Big Law partners dream of leaving their practices behind and becoming successful novelists. Ron Liebman made it a reality.
Liebman’s fourth novel, aptly titled “Big Law,” was just published by an imprint of Penguin Random House, and it’s the latest chapter in a writing career that was launched in Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein’s kitchen in the early 1980s.
A former Patton Boggs litigator for 26 years who also worked an eight-month stint at Dewey & LeBoeuf in 2007, Liebman taps into his storytelling experience he honed as a trial lawyer to deliver fast-paced, tight tales. Early in his career, Liebman, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland, helped prosecute Richard Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew for corruption. It didn’t end well for Agnew, who resigned in 1973.
In “Big Law,” Liebman, who retired from practice in 2008, takes readers inside 2,500-lawyer Dunn & Sullivan (fun, right?), through the eyes of Carney Blake, a hungry young partner aching to hit it big. When Dunn & Sullivan’s creepy chairman who suffers from a Napoleon complex calls on Blake to handle the plaintiffs’ side in a huge case against a blameworthy energy conglomerate, Blake’s flattered, but he also suspects something’s fishy. The energy giant is just the kind of client Dunn & Sullivan usually represents.
We spoke to Liebman, 73, about “Big Law” and how he transitioned from practice to prose.
Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
What was your inspiration for the character of Carl Smith, the chairman of Dunn & Sullivan? I can think of a few lawyers he reminds me of.
Carl Smith is a combination of several lawyers with traits that inspired the character: brilliance, ambition, aggressiveness, duplicity and charm—when necessary.
And the basis of the story? I see the Chevron Ecuador pollution case in there.
I was aware of the Chevron case. Who wasn’t? But it’s also about a series of cases in big law firms. They all seem to have similar themes: big projected payoff, and lots of work for lots of lawyers and paralegals. Not infrequently, the intake lawyer sees heaven at the end of the case and the drive to succeed blankets a critical analysis that would result [in the firm not taking the case].
How did you get your first book published, “Grand Jury,” in 1983?
During the Watergate era, I had met [Washington Post journalist] Carl Bernstein. He was married to Nora Ephron [screenplay writer of "When Harry Met Sally," "Silkwood" and "Sleepless in Seattle"]. I was in Carl and Nora’s kitchen having coffee. I opened my big mouth and said I was thinking about being an English teacher and that I thought I could be a good writer. Nora Ephron went to the phone—it was on the wall—and called her publisher and set up a meeting that day. I met with this guy who could not have been ruder to me. I sat there in his office as he went about his business. I was seething after about 20 minutes. I was on fire, that’s how angry I was. But I wrote about 30 pages of “Grand Jury” and sent them to him. I didn’t hear from him for months—and out of the blue I get this call.
What was the guy’s name?
I won’t tell you.
So what happened?
He and a young woman took me to lunch. We went to a Japanese place. I had a shell steak. The woman said, “I read your 30 pages, and I missed my subway stop.” He then said, “Let’s go meet Jason Epstein” [editorial director at Random House].
What’s your writing process?
My first novel published in the 1980s when I was working at Patton Boggs in Washington. I would get up very early in the morning and start writing at about 4:30. I’d write two to three hours. I walked to work at the time, and as I walked, I’d be plotting the next part. I still the write the same amount, three to four hours a day, most days. On days it isn’t working, I leave it and come back to it. My first editor taught me at the end of a day’s writing to leave some dangling live wires that you can connect the next day. That’s good advice.
Stephen King, in his memoir “On Writing,” says he starts with a conflict and lets the story grow organically from there. Is that what you do?
By the time I start writing, I have the storyline in my head, and I have a general sketch of the characters. I leave a lot of play in the joints, but I know the beginning, middle and end before I start.
How did being a litigator help with your writing?
One of the things that I prided myself on was how to speak to a jury, how to tell a story to a jury. For example, a pregnant pause is so powerful. Do you know why? By the time you speak again, every eyeball is on you.
Do you like John Grisham’s writing?
I enjoy him, but I wouldn’t put him up there with my favorites. He is an Incredibly able storyteller.
Who are your favorites?
I’m a great fan of Elmore Leonard. I love his style—the way he can convey wonderful meaning with just two words. There’s Hemingway. I also like Carl Hiaasen.
Do you consider yourself a lawyer who happened to become a writer or a writer who happened to be a lawyer?
I don’t know. I certainly started practicing law before I had any books published, but I don’t think chronology really gets at it. I’m a lawyer who happens also to be a writer, and a writer who happens also to be a lawyer.
What’s your advice for lawyers who are aspiring writers?
Keep writing, have a thick skin and keep your day job.