James Grippando of Boies Schiller Flexner in Fort Lauderdale is a finalist for the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.
James Grippando of Boies Schiller Flexner in Fort Lauderdale is a finalist for the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. ()

The Fort Lauderdale office of Boies Schiller Flexner may have the next John Grisham in its midst.

James Grippando, author of 25 novels and counsel at the firm, is a finalist for the 2017 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. His book “Gone Again” is up against novels by Jodi Picoult and Graham Moore. The winner, to be announced in September, will be chosen by a four-person panel with input from a public poll.

Grippando spoke with the Daily Business Review about what’s allowed him to flourish in both careers.

What does it mean to you to be a finalist for the Harper Lee Prize?

It’s one of the most exciting things that’s happened to me as a lawyer/author. Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of my all-time favorite books. I’m planning to use her book in the course on law and literature I’m teaching next spring at the University of Miami School of Law.

The theme of the course is the search for the truth in literature in a world of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” We’ll be reading fiction, nonfiction, some screenplays and discovering this concept of “where does the truth lie?” I think Harper Lee was probably one of the most honest writers there ever was, and to me that’s the key of great literature: honesty in the writing.

How do you balance your prolific writing career with the actual practice of law?

It was impossible in the ’90s, when I made the choice to leave Steel Hector & Davis after 12 years of practice. That was back in the day when no one telecommuted. Email was just catching on. Nobody had a smartphone.

I was out of the law for about five years, and then my friend Carlos Sires started working here [at Boies Schiller] with one of his friends, Stuart Singer. They came to me with a case for one of the major clients of the firm, Del Monte Fresh Produce, and it involved some interesting issues of intellectual property. It also, they told me, would involve travel to Hawaii and Costa Rica. I said, “That sounds pretty good. I’m on board.”

That one case developed into a relationship. I’ve been counsel at the firm now for 15 years. It has worked because of the acceptance of this idea of telecommuting. There’s no longer the requirement that there used to be of actual face time in the office constantly. Secondly, this is just a very special firm. David Boies, when he founded it, recognized that flexibility was a key concept. If you’re going to draw talent, people are going to have other interests, other lives.

I can write a book probably in about five months. The other seven months a year, [I have] this opportunity to be involved with one of the best firms in the country doing some of the most interesting work.

Where did you get the idea for “Gone Again”?

Sometimes ideas come to you like a lightning bolt, and sometimes ideas percolate in your head for awhile. This one is the latter. It does involve my serial character, Jack Swyteck, a criminal defense lawyer who works in Miami. Jack started his career in a book called “The Pardon,” which was published in 1994, and at the time he was doing death penalty work for inmates at Florida state prison. I had done a lot of death penalty work when I was a clerk [for Judge Thomas Clark] on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. I wanted to get Jack back to his roots. Honestly, I don’t know where this concept came to me about the mother of a victim coming to Jack and asking him to help her to get the man convicted of the murder off death row because she’s convinced her daughter’s still alive.

Then I came across a Reuters story about RADS children, reactive attachment disorder [an emotional condition caused by a lack of early nurturing]. I knew I had to have a very interesting character in the 17-year-old. What kind of person would run away from home and allow someone to be convicted for a murder he didn’t commit? So I connected that character with these children who are afflicted with RADS.

Why did you decide to focus on litigation and transactions rather than criminal law, like your character?

I just saw the toll that it took on [Judge Clark] to be making life-and-death decisions. You either feel that calling or you don’t, and the idea of dealing with life and death on a daily basis didn’t appeal to me. But I enjoy writing about it.

Do you hope your novels educate people about the legal system?

That’s something I really work hard to do in my writing: to be as realistic as possible while being entertaining. I’m not writing a legal tome here. I also hate books that are preachy. I would defy anyone to read “Gone Again” or “The Pardon” and guess where I stand on the death penalty. Neither one of those books screams a point of view. I hope to stimulate discussions and educate, but when you’re writing commercial fiction, your principal goal is to entertain.