From Trial Lawyer to Novelist
In the second column in our three-part series, From Work to Writing, renowned trial lawyer turned novelist Jonathan Putnam explains how his new series combines his legal experience with his loves of fiction and Abraham Lincoln.
I was a trial lawyer for 20 years before I began writing my novel, These Honored Dead. The book is the first in a historical mystery series starring young Abraham Lincoln and his real-life best friend and roommate, Joshua Speed. In my series, young Lincoln and Speed are a sort of Holmes and Watson, working together to solve mysteries and ensure that justice prevails in the courtroom.
Lincoln was a prolific trial lawyer. He handled over 5,000 cases in his legal career, which began in 1837 and continued all the way until he won the Presidency in 1860. In fact, he was still handling a number of active cases in 1860, at the very same time he was running for President.
In writing my book, I did a great deal of research into what Lincoln was like as a trial lawyer — especially as a brand-new lawyer, as my book takes place just after he’s been sworn into the bar. From all my research, I think I developed a good sense of Lincoln the lawyer, and I’ve tried to convey that in my book.
At the same time, it’s probably inevitable that some of my own experiences as a trial lawyer have crept into my portrait. Based on my 20 years in the courtroom I have a good ear and eye for the way things sound and look in a courtroom; the interplay among witness, lawyer, judge and jury; the rhythms of the testimony; the reactions of the gallery; the ebb and flow and tensions of a trial. I’d be doing my readers a disservice if I didn’t draw on this knowledge in writing the book.
In fact, one of my all-time favorite “war stories” from my own practice makes a cameo appearance in the book. When I was a young lawyer I got the chance to be the lead trial lawyer in a case for the first time. The client was a relatively small company, but for that company it was a “bet-the-company” case – if we lost, the client would be forced out of business. The client never asked how many cases I had tried before as lead trial counsel and I never volunteered the information, fearing that they wouldn’t let me try such an important case if they knew this was my first one.
Well, the trial went on for two weeks and then the jury got the case and they deliberated for two days. Two agonizing, stomach-churning days. In the middle of the second day of deliberations, the CEO of the client (who was chain-smoking and in at least as much agony as I was) turned to me and asked, “How does this compare to other waits for juries that you’ve experienced?”
For a moment I panicked. I couldn’t lie to him. But it didn’t seem like the best time to admit that I’d never done it before. And suddenly I found myself saying, casually, “It’s about average.” This truthful answer satisfied him (since it was the only such experience I’d had it was, by definition, the average), and two hours later the jury came back finding in favor of my client. We were both very happy and relieved.
Readers of These Honored Dead, which concerns Lincoln’s first-ever murder trial, will read a similar joke coming from Lincoln’s lips. It seemed in keeping with my research into Lincoln’s folksy, sly sense of humor. Besides, it was too good of a story not to share.
Jonathan Putnam is a nationally renowned trial lawyer and avid amateur Lincoln scholar. He has a degree in history from Harvard College and a law degree from Harvard Law School, from which he graduated first in his class. For many years he was a trial lawyer and partner at one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the country. The American Lawyer magazine profiled him as one of the top young trial lawyers in America. He currently lives in London, England. These Honored Dead is his first novel. Visit him at jonathanfputnam.com
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