By Amy Impellizzeri • October 01, 2017•Issues, Sexism, Sexual Harassment, and Other Forms of Discrimination, Women and Law in the Media
Since my first novel, Lemongrass Hope, was published in 2014, I’ve had the fabulous fortune of being invited to (read: have lovingly crashed) dozens – maybe even close to a hundred book clubs. When we get to the part where I left my career at Skadden Arps in 2009 for what was supposed to be a one-year sabbatical, but stayed away from the law to keep telling stories, I’m often asked an understandable question – so why don’t you use your legal experience to write legal fiction?
My answer has always been simple and true. Because I wasn’t a criminal lawyer in my past life. I was a corporate litigator. And corporate law is generally not the stuff of sexy, interesting stories. I promise you that.
But now I have a new novel coming out (The Truth About Thea, Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, October 17, 2017), and, as it turns out, it is a legal thriller. And more than that, it draws inspiration from my thirteen years of legal experience. But not from the big mega-giant corporations I spent years defending. Rather, from the long list of experts I hired to help defend them – and even more interestingly – the experts I had to confront who were hired by the other side. Especially the ones I dealt with at the beginning of my career, who were often patronizing and difficult. The use of expert witnesses is admittedly a strategy in corporate litigation and criminal cases, and indeed, in The Truth About Thea, the story opens with the main character on trial – in a criminal trial – in the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia. So maybe I cheated just a little bit.
But the truth is, working with expert witnesses, even the difficult ones, was one of my favorite assignments as a litigator. After all, they are the story-tellers of the case. Fact witnesses are there to testify about, well, facts. But experts are the only ones at the trial who get to give their opinions – in other words, who get to tell what might have happened. Particularly in complicated cases with layers of evidence that weaves this way and that, experts are the ones who pull it all together and tell the story they want the jury to believe.
Tell me the story you want me know. This is my main character’s signature tagline in my novel. Thea Brown owns a business called Alibis, which helps clients create false social media personas – even allowing them to post online from times and places where they are not. After Thea and Alibis become the very public scapegoats in a case involving a deadly factory fire allegedly started by one of her clients, Thea’s public defender hires an expert who gives a very controversial opinion. According to her expert witness, Thea Brown is addicted to social media. And moreover, the expert opines, Thea’s addiction should land her in rehab – not prison.
This expert opinion sets off a chain of events that involves the unraveling of both Thea Brown’s past, as well as the past of the head counselor at the posh celebrity rehab in which Thea Brown is sent following a plea bargain.
Tell me the story you want me to know. Come to think of it, that was the tagline for every jury I was ever in front of as well.
In my nonfiction debut, Lawyer Interrupted (ABA Publishing 2015), I recounted a story about an expert witness with whom I had a little run in with in 1999. At that time, I represented a large client that was involved in thousands of lawsuits claiming workplace exposure. We litigated the cases aggressively, and actually managed to have the other side’s expert witness barred from testifying because we proved how unqualified he was. When a new expert, Dr. L, was hired, I was sent to help depose him along with numerous other co-counsel from other firms.
The deposition went on for hours, and I hadn’t even had a chance to ask a single question before everyone realized it was dark outside and they were all parked in nearby parking garages that were about to close. I had taken a train to the deposition, so I had no similar concerns. Dr. L had been driven to the deposition so he had no concerns either. We all decided to keep going with the deposition – late into the night – but everyone took a break and left to move their cars first.
Everyone except Dr. L and me. Even the court reporter left. Even the attorneys who had driven Dr. L to the deposition left. I buried my head in my notes and outline, and Dr. L went to use the restroom. When he came back into the room, I ignored him. He didn’t like that.
He started humming and dancing, trying to get my attention.
A jig. I thought. He’s dancing a jig. I glanced up at him briefly. He was airborne for a moment, feet clicking up to one side. Truly.
And he said gleefully, “I really don’t care how long this takes. I hope it takes all night. After all, I’m getting paid by the hour.”
I put my head back in my notes and resumed ignoring him. He continued dancing and clucking, until the rest of the attorneys started streaming back in, and then Dr. L turned serious and stopped dancing.
Near the end of the deposition, I finally got my turn to question Dr. L. The lone woman in the room, and the youngest in the room – I was used to taking my turn toward the end.
I started my questioning with: “Dr. L, how much are you charging today – per hour – for your testimony in these cases?”
“She’s an attorney? I thought she was just a girl in the room.” He turned to the attorney to his right, who nodded and told the surprised and now-embarrassed doctor that he was going to have to answer all of my questions.
At trial, I tried to get Dr. L to admit what he had done and said when everyone was out of the room, when he thought I was just a “girl in the room”, but he wouldn’t. He lied on the stand. And the jury could tell. They discounted all of his testimony and found in favor of my client. Dr. L came up to me after trial and whispered in my ear: “You think you’re pretty clever, don’t you?”
What I learned from Dr. L and many more like him, no matter whether the expert is working for or against you, they really are instrumental at trial in crafting the story you want the jury to know. That lesson stayed with me when I transitioned from full-time litigator to full-time storyteller.
So what better way to craft my own legal thriller than with a public trial, a host of secrets, and a controversial expert witness? But be warned. Nothing is as it seems.
Oh. And you should not take too lightly … the girl in the room.
Amy Impellizzeri is a former corporate litigator turned start-up executive turned award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction. Her newest novel, The Truth About Thea, releases on October 17, 2017. She is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers, co-founder of the innovative social media group BLOOM, and immediate past President of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.