| Don’t Write Alone
Writing Life Being a Good Lawyer Can Make You a Bad Writer
But being a good writer makes me an even better lawyer.
I was holding back tears as I clicked “Leave Meeting” on Zoom. During the court hearing, the judge had called my position absurd and denied my request. I took off my suit jacket and slumped down in my office chair. For the next few hours, I distracted myself with mindless document review until my afternoon therapy appointment.
When the appointment started, the tears came. My therapist asked why this particular loss had affected me so much. I’d been practicing law for ten years and lost plenty of hearings. This was the first one I cried over.
As I searched for an answer, the judge’s words kept crowding my thoughts. “You can’t just get up here and say whatever some other attorney told you to say,” he scolded. “You need to tell me why you think I should grant this motion.”
Though I’d lost before, I’d never been caught like this. Even in virtual court, the judge could detect a canned speech. He pressed me to think past the rehearsed legal arguments and express my own opinion. I couldn’t. I failed.
I told my therapist that while I felt very legitimate as a lawyer, with an expensive Ivy League law degree, I didn’t feel very authentic. Part of this was the nature of legal reasoning—lawyers should be able to recite the facts, law, and results of cases—but I’d taken that principle too far. As the judge had suspected, the arguments I made in court regurgitated words from other attorneys or judicial opinions.
Though I was taught to practice law this way, the judge’s reprimand made me question why I’d clung to this teaching for so long after law school. I’d shed other parts of my legal training that didn’t suit lawyering in the real world—why not this one?
It was because I felt inferior. For as long as I’d been a lawyer, I needed validation from others—older attorneys, opposing counsel, judges—in order to say or write anything. Only then did I believe my ideas were valuable.
I came to law school full of confidence despite not knowing anything about the law, or knowing any lawyers or legal clerks, apart from Ally McBeal, Erin Brockovich, and Elle Woods. I assumed I could make up for my unfamiliarity with hard work.
However, no amount of reading or participation in study groups helped me to “think like a lawyer.” Law school drilled into me that the only valid arguments were ones that didn’t deviate from what courts had already decided was legitimate. For three years, we were beaten over the head with the importance of adhering to precedent—the set of legal rules and principles established in prior cases that determines the outcome for similar cases. For me, this meant I had to scrutinize my every thought for its validity and conformity.
Ten years passed this way before I realized that I was miserable practicing law.
Being a Black woman and the first lawyer in my immigrant family—not to mention the first college graduate—only exacerbated my inferiority complex. The legal industry is overwhelmingly white and male, and it’s white male lawyers whose ideas become the precedent that we all have to follow. It’s white male lawyers whose ideas become valid. So, to succeed in the legal industry, I began parroting the words of other attorneys and judges, who were almost exclusively white men.
Ten years passed this way before I realized that I was miserable practicing law. There was no space to have my own ideas, to ask questions, to have humility, or to feel unsure. There was no space to be Black, first-generation, or a woman—no space to be myself.
When the pandemic hit and I no longer had to commute to work or travel for cases out of state, my therapist suggested I use my newfound free time to consider a career change. I thought about where there was space for me. I thought about what stuck with me, what I always went back to, where there was always room for my ideas.
That was writing.
As a kid, I loved reading and then trying to emulate what I read. I wrote stories on college-ruled notebook paper in homage to The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High . In high school, I wrote feature articles in the school newspaper, doing my best imitation of the cover stories in Teen People and Rolling Stone .
In college, I majored in English. In my spare time, I wrote the beginnings of personal essays in my journal, trying to make sense of the binge drinking and hookup culture around me. In law school, I sent friends my critical essays on pop culture—pieces on the TV show Parenthood ’s problematic choice to write its only Black character as a recovering alcoholic, or why Drake’s clear rapping style was revolutionary amid the mumble rap popular at the time. My friends joked that I was preparing to go into the wrong profession. But I shook my head. I’d already borrowed six figures—and counting. It seemed unwise to reverse course now.
I tried to focus only on my legal studies, but creative writing seeped into my academic work as well. I turned in take-home exams that were my first forays into memoir. In my Law and Poverty class, I wrote about growing up poor. In a class on gender and the legal system, I wrote about being sexually assaulted. This unique approach didn’t work so well in the mandatory first-year classes, which solely evaluated our ability to memorize fact patterns and case holdings. My GPA suffered for it. But, when I could choose my own courses, I sought out nontraditional classes with professors who encouraged writing about our own experiences. In those classes, I earned top grades.
My therapist, noticing a theme in my past interests, suggested I return to writing.
When I first sat down to write after a ten-year hiatus, I was frozen by the shock of the blank page. Unlike with legal writing, there was no template to follow, no schema that I could rearrange to fit my particular facts. I reflexively Googled topics I was interested in writing about, conditioned to make sure someone else had deemed an idea valid before I thought it was worthy.
Always a good student, I looked to classes for help. Roxane Gay began her online writing class by sharing that the hardest part about writing is believing your story matters. “You are someone with something to share,” she told us, “and that’s all that really matters.” My eyes welled up. I paused the video and repeated those words a few times to myself.
The next time I sat down to write, I typed those words at the top of my screen and kept them there. They helped me push past my discomfort and just write. For months, I poured out ideas and experiences that I’d held inside for years. It’s not a coincidence that my first few pieces discussed subjects from the nineties and the aughts. I’d waited decades to tell those stories.
I would rush through my ten-hour workday and write well into the night. The glow of my laptop kept me awake as the neighbors’ lights turned off and my partner went to bed. I started to believe that my ideas mattered precisely because no one else had expressed them. My words were valid not because they were in line with precedent, but because they were authentic to me.
The initial rush wore off as I tried to balance writing and the law. Not only was it hard to find time to write when my law job picked back up to fifty to sixty hours a week, but I also discovered that practicing law stifled my creative process.
What qualified as good legal writing usually made for bad prose. As a lawyer, I’d been taught not to make arguments that exposed weaknesses in my position. My legal writing projected absolute confidence that I was right. When writing personal pieces, this was an obstacle. It meant that I couldn’t let myself write about, let alone acknowledge, my weaknesses and ambivalences, or the times where I was wrong.
Moreover, the point of lawyering is to win, and my legal training taught me to attack the other side relentlessly. On the page, I didn’t know how to spare bad exes, disloyal friends, and unreliable family members the pummeling my opponents usually took. This made for prose that was little more than preconceived arguments supported with damning evidence, usually examples of others’ bad behavior. While this kind of writing was successful in court, it wasn’t cathartic to produce. I was nowhere to be found in the prose, and neither was any introspection. My writing ended in the same place it started: with the point I was trying to prove.
What qualified as good legal writing usually made for bad prose.
Once, frustrated with a piece that blamed about fifteen people for my being a bad dancer—instead of probing why I cared so much about it—I slammed my laptop shut and attempted to distract myself with social media. It seemed like most of my favorite authors had pursued writing much earlier, in college and MFAs and journalism school. If they weren’t writing full-time, they were at least in writing-adjacent fields like publishing or teaching.
I thought about the thirteen years and hundreds of thousands of dollars I’d spent on being a lawyer. Had I wasted all this time and money with no skills to show for it?
I considered quitting for an internship or an MFA, but I couldn’t afford to do either. I had student debt, a mortgage, and an extended family to support.
Still, I could afford online classes and Zoom talks on craft and getting published. These classes showed me there were some parts of lawyering I could bring to writing. For example, I intuitively understood the art of pitching, which is essentially making an argument, a practice I did on a daily basis.
I knew how to write succinctly. It seemed editors disliked superfluous words as much as judges did. I had no problem being edited—a sea of tracked changes on a draft didn’t scare me. And, when my pitches were rejected, I reassured myself that it didn’t mean anything more than a difference in preference. Sometimes you do your best, and the judge, or an editor, just doesn’t see things your way.
As I continued to write, I realized the relationship went both ways: My newfound writing skills could and should be transferred to practicing law. Trusting my own editorial voice has helped me cut down on the number of drafts before filing in court. And I have made it a point to speak up in the courtroom with my own words—not imitating someone else’s. I have gone from having no voice or litigation style of my own to teaching younger lawyers of color how to find theirs. “Be ready to tell the judge why they should rule for you, in your own words,” I tell them. “And don’t be afraid to go off-script. Maybe you have ideas that no one has thought of before, and those ideas could win the day.”
As a melodramatic millennial, it’s easy to feel like thirty-six is too old to start over in a new field. There are enough late bloomers to humble me and show this path is possible—Barack Obama graduated from law school at thirty, 2 Chainz signed a record deal at thirty-five, Julia Child published her first cookbook at forty-seven. I also know that I would not be able to write if I hadn’t spent the last decade as a lawyer. I wouldn’t have the money, and I wouldn’t have the urgency.
I may not continue practicing law forever. I share many writers’ dream of writing full time. But I know it will be a long time before I can, and that the time may never come. So while I have the need and privilege to do both jobs, I choose to see them as symbiotic rather than stymying.
I’m a better writer and a better lawyer for it.