Novel Approach

To read the first chapter of Silent Counsel, click here.


It's not uncommon for a lawyer to try his or her hand at writing a novel--particularly a legal thriller. John Grisham, Scott Turow and David Baldacci, for example, have captivated readers with legal thrillers for years--many of their works even made it onto the big screen. But they are the exception. Lawyers who do give writing a try usually don't see such success.

Moreover, most are too busy or risk averse to even try.

One in-house counsel clearly deviates from this norm. Ken Isaacson, the GC of New Jersey-based transportation company Allstates WorldCargo, decided many years ago to take a stab at writing a novel. Isaacson had stumbled upon an article about a Florida lawyer who was withholding the name of his client--the driver in a hit-and-run fatality--until he could reach a plea deal for the client with the district attorney.

The elements of this story gave Isaacson the idea for his first novel--and he spent the next several years pulling it together. Within a month of its publication in September 2007, "Silent Counsel" held Amazon.com's No. 2 spot for hot new releases in legal thrillers and No. 4 for bestselling legal thrillers.

Isaacson wasn't fulfilling a life-long dream when he became an accomplished novelist. In fact, as a youngster, law wasn't even on his list of career goals. He had his eyes on engineering--and after high school, he entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's urban planning and studies program.

Regarding his decision to abandon engineering in favor of law, Isaacson quotes John Lennon: "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." After graduating from Columbia Law in 1975, Isaacson enjoyed years of success as a litigator. But he realized going in-house would offer him a better work-life balance. Little did he know, it also would offer him the time he needed to flourish as a novelist.


Q:How did you end up at Allstates WorldCargo?
A: It was one of my clients while I was at Goldberg, Mufson & Spar. I handled a number of major litigations for Allstates, and in early 2002 the president invited me on board. At that time, it did not have a legal department, and I was brought on as GC.

Q: Tell me a little about your work.
A:We have a small legal department--just me. On some days, my dog Oakley comes to work with me. Issues that come my way include litigation, employment matters and regulatory compliance. We have 21 branch offices across the country. Many are licensees. Until earlier this year, our stock was registered under Rule 12(g) [of the Securities Exchange Act] so there was a lot of securities work. But last year we terminated that registration.

Q: How did you become a writer?
A:As a lawyer, I write for living. In fact, many believe lawyers write fiction for a living. I also am a reader, and I like storytelling. As a litigator I learned to tell a compelling story. And all these ingredients sort of fell into place.

Q: How did you find time to write a novel?
A:My alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. every morning. I get to my office by 6 a.m., and I spend a few hours writing before the e-mails start coming in. For the most part, it's how I wrote "Silent Counsel."

Q: How long did it take you to write "Silent Counsel"?
A:When people ask me this, my initial response is "about 54 years." But seriously, it took a long time. I was working full time as an attorney, and my life was very full. Writing a novel was something I was trying my hand at--it wasn't my livelihood. No one was depending on it. I would work on it for a while, then it would sit in a drawer for a while. It was a very lengthy process. I finished it about five years ago.

Q: How did you find a publisher?
A:First you need an agent, and I discovered the intricate dance that goes into finding one. You send a query letter and wait six weeks for the agent to write back. If you're lucky, he will ask to see the first three chapters. You send those and wait another six weeks to find out if he wants to read the whole manuscript. If so, you send it and wait for the verdict. The verdict in my case was always, "I really like it, but I am just not 'passionate' about it." But the good news was no agent wrote back and said, "Who are you kidding?" So I was encouraged. But there were still no takers.

I felt I had to make a symbolic break with it for about a year. I put the book in a box, then I wrapped it in tape and put the box in the back of the closet. I told my wife what I did and she said "Oh, like a funeral?" And I said, "No, it's more like cryogenically frozen until a cure is found." After a year, I approached small publishers--and that's when I found Windermere Press.

Q: What is it about being in-house counsel that makes you a better legal novelist?
A: A lot of the things that help in structuring a novel are things lawyers get experience in: structuring a plot, handling twists and turns. Your skill set as a lawyer is helpful in telling a compelling story and grasping the attention of your audience. The environment of in-house practice vs. law firm practice is a more forgiving one. I simply had more time to focus on writing.

Q: What do you like about your GC position?
A:No time sheets. Not working for that billable hour all the time. In a law firm, you have to do work, bill time and generate new business. In a GC position, you have to do your work, but you don't have to be frantic about accounting for every fraction of an hour or pounding the pavement finding new clients.

Q: What do you love most about being a successful writer?
A:The satisfaction of simply having finished "Silent Counsel" is amazing. As I went through it, I had no idea of the obstacles. Getting e-mails and letters from strangers who have read it and enjoyed it is very rewarding. It has given me confidence to write my next novel. The success of "Silent Counsel" is to me an indication that maybe I do know what I'm doing.

Q: What have been the challenges of writing while holding not just a full-time job but one with hefty responsibilities?
A:Time management is the biggest challenge. I get to my office in the morning, and I do my best to spend a few hours writing. But every once in awhile there will be a folder or file on my desk that my eyes shift to, and I can't justify not picking it up.

Q: What advice would you give to other lawyers wanting to write a novel?
A:Write! You can think about it, you can research, you can outline, you can brainstorm. But until you sit down and actually start writing, you aren't going to get anyplace. It won't be easy. Woody Allen said 99 percent of life is showing up. You have to show up at the computer, and you have to write.

Q: Given no boundaries, what is your dream job?
A:My job here at Allstates is pretty good. If I had my dream job, it would be one that allowed me to write, but also allowed me the luxury of taking on only those cases that interested me.

Editor

Cathleen Flahardy

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