Why Lawyers Should Pick Up More Crime Thriller Novels

Here we explore why lawyers should read more fiction books and thriller crime novels and how it can help their career as a lawyer.

Robert Rotenberg’s career and upbringing have been centred around his love for writing. He grew up in a family of passionate readers and storytellers and – after a detour to law school and becoming a magazine editor, a film executive and a radio producer – he opened his own criminal law practice. But Robert still didn’t lose his passion for writing, and gladly so. As well as becoming a successful criminal lawyer, he’s a bestselling Simon & Schuster author of five books, with his latest, “Downfall”, being published this week on 2 February.

With his debut novel ‘Old City Hall’ becoming a best selling novel in Canada, (and translated into nine languages) Robert takes his readers on an exciting journey, where they explore the ins and outs of crime and gripping murder trials. Interestingly, Robert states his novels have enabled him to be a better lawyer. We have the delight of speaking to him this month, where we explore the power of good writing and how it can influence, captivate and motivate, and how it can improve one’s career as a lawyer.

How does being a writer make you a better lawyer?

At its core, being a lawyer, especially a criminal lawyer, is the process of storytelling. All good stories have the same key elements: characters, setting, inciting incidents, conflict, plot, subplot, protagonist, antagonist, self-discovery, desire, need and resolution.

In my law practice, I spend a tremendous amount of time getting to know my clients, putting together comprehensive chronologies of events, and then, most important, writing detailed memos to the prosecutor and the judge that tells the story.

This is unusual for criminal lawyers, who tend to want to hold all of their cards close to their vest.

I usually, not in every case of course, do the opposite. I find when you flush out the people involved, the plot, the sub-plot, and the road to settlement, it is remarkably effective.

I’ve been in practice for more than 30 years. My first novel, “Old City Hall”, was published 12 years ago. Since then, I’ve settled 95% of my cases without a trial.

The main reason behind this is because I get to know all the characters (my clients), figure out the plot (the evidence good and bad) and tell their story (advocacy) right through to resolution.

I teach writing to lawyers and the thing I tell them, over and over, is that every word counts.

How important is effective writing in the legal industry?

When I walked into law school I was a 23-year-old, long-haired, English-major-misfit. The only course I cared about was criminal law, and for three years I spent most of my time at the school’s legal clinic running the criminal law division. In my first year, I had a wonderful criminal law professor, the late Graham Parker. He was Australian, educated in England and he complained constantly that “lawyers don’t know how to write”.

To get through law school, I dove into reading Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett detective novels. They were my refuge from the boredom of property and torts. When it came time to write my first exam for Professor Parker, I thought, to hell with it. I wrote the whole answer as a Sam Spade novel: “I was sitting my office in Frisco, the fog was rolling in, I’d just lit a pipe when this dame, Lady A burst in…”

The exam was just before the Christmas break. When I came back in January I fully anticipated that I’d be tossed out of school. Instead, Parker loved it, and for years I’d run into law students from my law school (Osgoode Hall here in Toronto) who when they heard my name, said, “Oh you’re Rotenberg. We’re so sick of hearing about your exam.”

I tell this not to brag, but to illustrate that writing matters, telling a story and being interesting is crucial.

Many of my best friends are now judges and their biggest complaint is that the written material they receive is turgid, dense, unclear, too long, and unreadable. What do they want? Simple: tell them the story.

I teach writing to lawyers and the thing I tell them, over and over, is that every word counts. Everything you write, even an email to another lawyer, needs to, yes I’ll say it again, tell a clear, cogent story.

What are your top tips for lawyers who want to be better writers in their profession?

Read fiction. It amazes me how many lawyers, and at the risk of sounding sexist, especially male lawyers, tell me: “I only read non-fiction.” I can’t imagine my life without at least two books on the go at all times.

There’s a wonderful saying I love: Fiction has a great advantage over non-fiction, because with fiction the writer doesn’t have to worry about facts and can tell the truth.

Yes, fiction tells the truth. Don’t believe me? Want to learn about England during the Industrial Revolution? What do you read? Dickens, of course. California during the depression? Steinbeck. New York in the 1990s? Tom Wolfe.

If you want to learn how to tell a story, then read stories.

Never fool yourself into thinking writing is easy.

A few more practical tips:

* In the words of Ernest Hemingway, ‘The first draft of anything is shit’. Blurt it out and get it down. Then cut, cut and cut. I teach novel writing, and inevitably, my students’ first chapters are about 3,000 words long. I make them cut it in half, then I show them how to cut another half. I take 3,000 words down to 750 words, every time.

* Have someone read it out loud to you. Print the memo, letter or the brief out on paper. No screens. While the person reads to you, take a red pen and cut every word you can. Here is your ‘three-word bible’: Don’t be boring.

* Chronology is everything, especially in law. Before you write, make a detailed chronological list of events. Go over and over it with your client and keep filling it in. This will be your road map.

* Be bold. Don’t be afraid to use strong language.

* The core things about writing always apply: use dynamic verbs; rip out excessive adverbs; cut repetitive adjectives; use active voice not passive; show don’t tell.

* Let it sit. When you write something important, don’t send it. Put it away overnight. Like when you are doing a crossword, when you come back to it you will see the answers much more clearly.

* Never fool yourself into thinking writing is easy.

I cannot think of any other job that gives one such insight into human behaviour and the endlessly fascinating story of people’s lives.

On the contrary, how does being a lawyer make you a better writer?

I’ve had the great fortune of meeting many top writers whose books I’ve read and loved. Inevitably, when they find out that I’m also a full-time criminal lawyer they say: “Lucky you. Stories must walk into your office every day.” And they are right.

Crime novels can sometimes be perceived as outlandish – how has your experience as a lawyer shaped your storylines?

I keep my novels grounded in reality. I’m not a fan of overly dramatic and unbelievable stories. I’ve done enough murder trials to know that there is no need for hyperbole. Every homicide is like a gigantic rock landing in the middle of a once-calm pond, the waves ripple out in all directions, disrupting everyone’s life: the families left behind, the witnesses, the accused, the cops, the lawyers, the judges, the press.

The courtroom is the place in society where we all must come, in search of the truth, justice, fairness, ambiguity, tragedy, conflict and resolution. It is the ideal place for conflict and drama.

What was it about crime that captivated your interest?

It’s all about people and the inevitable conflict between our personal morals and personal reality. I have a theory that applies to both the characters I write about and my clients. We all have three lives: our public life out in the world, our private life with our loved ones, and our secret life. When someone is arrested, they lose their secrets. So, too, with great characters.

As a criminal lawyer, people come to my office and in the matter of an hour or less, will tell me (and sometimes for the first time themselves) things that they’ve never told anyone before.

I cannot think of any other job that gives one such insight into human behaviour and the endlessly fascinating story of people’s lives.

Usually, when people commit a crime (allegedly, of course) it unveils a moment of great revelation.

Hopefully, at minimum, when they read my books, lawyers will have a good laugh and with luck pick up a few funny lines to use the next time they are in court.

How often does working on a criminal law case feel like an unravelling mystery, (similar to your books)?

Every time. Criminal lawyers call it ‘peeling back the onion’, as we dig and dig to slowly unravel and peel back the facts and secrets. I recently bought Vincent Bugliosi’s tremendous book, “And the Sea Will Tell” for two young lawyers in our firm.  In the book Bugliosi describes in detail how he prepared his client to testify, how he went over and over her story filling in the facts… telling her story and peeling back the onion.

Although books, films and TV shows love the drama of cross-examination, I have always found that it is in my examination-in-chief of my clients, telling their story, all the good and all the bad, where I win my cases. When my client finally gets off the stand, the prosecutor should have no questions left to ask, the judge and the jury should know who the real person is, care about them.

Trial can sometimes be a long, treacherous journey, especially for clients; how did you unveil the interesting side for your novels?

My novels are a mixture of the lives of detectives, lawyers and journalists. I want the reader to live the trial with all of them, especially the lawyers. The endless nights of work, the gut-crunching pressure of being on your feet in court and prepared to go morning after morning, even when the rest of your life is falling apart and the high toll the work takes on a great lawyer’s personal relationships. I think a criminal murder trial is as close as one can come to being an emergency doctor or a surgeon with a dying patient; the patient, your client, is, totally dependent on your every move.

Even though they are fictional, what could lawyers learn from your thrilling novels?

I always ask people who read my books: “Did you laugh, did you cry, did the pages turn? But most of all did you laugh?”. Hopefully, at minimum, when they read my books, lawyers will have a good laugh and with luck pick up a few funny lines to use the next time they are in court.

Robert Rotenberg, Canada, Toronto


In his more than 30 years at the bar, Robert has done every type of criminal case, as he likes to say ‘everything from shoplifting to murder.’ He believes that from the moment a new client contacts him, he must be there to help. He insists on meeting right away – day or night, weekday or weekend. He’s very hands on. He’s always there for his clients.

Robert is also the author of five best-selling novels, a screenwriter and a frequent public speaker. His sixth novel, “Downfall”, will be published by Simon & Schuster on 2 Feb 2021.

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