Saturday, March 31, 2007

What Do You Know?

Ken Isaacson (Guest Blogger)

They say you should write what you know. There’s no shortage of lawyers-turned-authors, and most of them do just that. I guess, in that regard, I’m no different—but only to a degree. My first novel, Silent Counsel, is a legal thriller (imagine that!), but I can’t say that it draws on real-life experiences taken from my twenty-five-plus years of legal practice. I’m just a simple corporate counsel, working in-house at a major transportation company. I haven’t defended murderers, rapists, thieves, or the like, and although I’ve handled matters that evoke a “jeez, you could write a book about it” feeling because of their quirks, I don’t know that they would be books that anyone would be particularly interested in reading. So, while I do write about what I know—the law—I don’t necessarily write about what I do.

Take Silent Counsel. It asks you to suppose the unimaginable: What if your child was killed in a hit-and-run, and the one person who knew the driver’s identity—his lawyer—didn’t have to tell you his name because the court held it was privileged information? A story about a mother who will go to any length to find out who’s responsible for the death of her six-year-old son, Silent Counsel shows the very real impact that the attorney-client privilege can have on the people it touches—both the lawyer who’s bound to remain silent, and the person who wants to know what the lawyer is keeping secret.

Now, I’ve never been in a situation that comes even close to what the characters in Silent Counsel encounter—my experience with the attorney-client privilege is limited to trying to avoid turning over an embarrassing document to opposing counsel in a contract dispute—you know, the memo from the president of the company that says “Damn it, I know it’s wrong. Do it anyway.” But as a lawyer, I write for a living, and I guess there are cynics who’d even say that lawyers write fiction for a living. So I can use my knowledge of the law and spin a damn good yarn about the kind of privileged information that’s worth reading about.

If I think hard enough, I can remember maybe a handful of actual cases I’ve handled that, if not interesting enough to actually write about, at least make good party talk. Like the fellow I represented back in the 80s who had bought a converted loft building in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, only to find out that one of the tenants was operating a sadomasochistic sex club in her rented “office.” Believe it or not, it wasn’t easy finding a legal basis for booting this fine establishment out. I had to rely on a statute that dated back to the 1800s, which forbade the use of rented premises as “a bawdy house, or place of assignation for lewd persons.” After checking the dictionary for “bawdy” and “assignation” (I had a pretty good idea what “lewd” meant), I decided that was the way to go. Preparing for the trial of that eviction proceeding was interesting—just reading the investigator’s report on his, uh, undercover visit to the club was an eye-opener. And the trial itself? The usually deserted courtroom (landlord-tenant court isn’t too high on the professional court-watcher’s “must see” list) quickly filled up minutes after the investigator took the stand, as word of his testimony—and a description of what he’d observed—filtered through the courthouse. We prevailed, and I attended the eviction with the city marshal. I still have a souvenir on my desk: a pair of shackles and chains left behind by the club owners. When I was practicing in a law firm, I told visitors that that was how the partners ensured that billable hours were maximized.

Then there was the time I had to repossess a fleet of jumbo jets from an international airline because of missed lease payments. I’d had plenty of experience repossessing bulldozers, backhoes, and other assorted construction equipment, and that had been relatively easy: Start a lawsuit, obtain a Writ of Replevin, tell the Sheriff where he could find the piece, and send him to haul it away. What could be difficult about taking back a couple of airplanes? Same concept, bigger prize. But it’s all in the execution. A bulldozer, you can hide in big garage. You’d think it would be a mite difficult to hide a bunch of jumbo jets, huh? Can you say “risk of flight”? Luckily, I was able to negotiate a settlement before I had to rent hangar space (once you nab ‘em, you gotta store ‘em somewhere), hire a team of qualified pilots (someone’s gotta at least taxi ‘em from where they’re seized over to the hangar), and dispatch a posse of U.S. Marshals to oversee the operation (someone’s gotta lay down the law). Sometimes, the best cases get settled before the good stuff starts.

Now that I think about it, maybe there is the germ of an idea or two lurking in the workaday stuff that a boring corporate attorney deals with. I guess whoever said you should write what you know knew what she was talking about. To that, I’d just add: “Write even what you didn’t realize you know!”

© 2007 by Ken Isaacson

Ken's legal thriller, Silent Counsel, will be out in September 2007.


Julia Buckley said...

Wow, Ken! You do have a lot of great material there.

Just curious: didn't the bawd make enough money in her sex club to finance the purchase of some real estate? Why rent? Is New York that expensive?


Lonnie Cruse said...

Mercy, obviously I'm missing something by not sitting in on local trials, and the state's attorney is a friend! 'Scuse me, I've gotta get to court! Great blog post, thanks!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

In a word, Julia: Yes. ;)

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now. Keep it up!
And according to this article, I totally agree with your opinion, but only this time! :) said...

Wow, Ken! You have shared stuff. i really thankful to you.

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