Ms. J.D. Interviews Lawyer-Turned-Author Allison Leotta

Again, I’ve been afforded the great opportunity to delve into the world of a “Lawyer-Turned-Novelist.” This time Ms. J.D. interviews a former federal prosecutor in Washington D.C. She graduated from Michigan State University, and Harvard Law School. For twelve years Allison Leotta specialized in sex crimes, domestic violence, and crimes against children. She published her debut novel Law of Attraction in 2010, and received numerous accolades. Her novels have been referred to as “real,” “riveting,” and in my humble opinion, relatable! Allison currently lives outside of Washington D.C. with her family, no doubt contemplating her next huge legal thriller.


Did you always want to be a lawyer?

Allison Leotta: It was always high on my list.  My dad was a federal prosecutor in Detroit, and I grew up fascinated by his stories and inspired by public service.  He loved going in to work every day and striving to make his community a better place. I saw how interesting and rewarding that job was.

Do you believe that there is anything to be, or that can be, taught about the law through legal novels?

Allison Leotta: A good legal thriller is the best way to learn about the law.  Great crime novels teach while they entertain –and entertain you so well, you don’t even notice you’re learning!

Can you share any secrets about what you’re writing next?

Allison Leotta: My next novel is about rapes on college campuses.  It’s called The Last Good Girl, and will be published in 2016.

What was your transition from lawyer-to-novelist like? Did you completely quit practicing law to write, or was it a gradual move?

Allison Leotta: I started writing while I was still working at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C.  I would wake up at 5:00 am and write til 7:00 am, then go in to the office.  If you want to write a novel while keeping your day job, I recommend you do it this way – first thing in the morning, before the laundry list of everyday life overwhelms your brain. 

In the middle of my first draft, I had my first baby. Then I had to write whenever I had a free moment – during naps or after bedtime.  Now the sound of a softly snoring baby sets off a Pavlovian response in me to start typing. My first novel, Law of Attraction, took two years to complete.  Simon & Schuster/Touchstone bought it, and asked me to continue it as a series.  For a while I tried to do all three of my jobs – mommying, prosecuting, and writing.  At some point during the writing of the second book, I realized I couldn’t juggle all three and hope to do any of them really well.  I left the USAO to concentrate on writing full time.  It was tough to leave because I loved that job.  But being asked to become part of the world of books was a dream come true.

The main character Anna Curtis practiced the same type of law that you did when you practiced. Was there anything that you particularly wanted to bring to Anna’s world as a federal prosecutor that you experienced as an AUSA?

Allison Leotta: I try to take the most interesting parts of my real cases and make them elements of my stories. Some of the most implausible plot twists are things that actually happened in D.C. Superior Court! I am also pulled by the emotions that come with these incredibly personal cases. There’s terrible heartbreak and tragedy, but also moments of real courage, love, and healing. I was inspired by the people—victims who had the courage to come forward, police officers devoted to helping their community, prosecutors working late into the night to try to make a difference. It’s very satisfying when I write a scene and feel like I’ve captured that.

Mentorship is important in almost any field. Has mentoring furthered your legal career as well as your writing career? Which career did networking affect the most?

Allison Leotta: Thinking about this question, I realized that in every legal job I landed, I got it because someone who mentored me pushed for it.  My first lawyer-mentor was the judge for whom I clerked, the wonderful Judge Algenon Marbley of the Southern District of Ohio.  He taught me so much about the law, courtroom demeanor, and how to present myself as a lawyer.  When I told him that I dreamed of working at DOJ after the clerkship, he called the interviewers at DOJ and suggested they pull my resume out of the stack and take a look.  I’m sure Judge Marbley’s recommendation is why I landed a job at the DOJ Honors Program, although that year there were like 1000 applications for every open position. 

Four years later, my DOJ supervisor, a terrific lawyer named Henry LaHaie, made a similar phone call to the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office, which helped me get a highly-coveted interview there.  In the legal world – where competition for plum positions can be fierce - having someone who knows your work and can vouch for it makes a huge difference. 

Novel writing is definitely a more solitary pursuit – you’re really not doing your job unless you’re alone.  But I’ve found the mystery/thriller world to be extremely warm and friendly, and I’ve been lucky to have writer-mentors who have helped me navigate a career through an industry that is rapidly changing.  I’m also lucky to have a terrific agent and editor, Amy Berkower and Lauren Spiegel, who have helped me immeasurably along the way.

You grew up near Detroit, and your characters have as well. Was or Is, there a reason to set Detroit as the center stage for a criminal thriller novel, or is there something about the city that you’d like to say or bring to the forefront of the readers’ minds?

Allison Leotta: I grew up near Detroit and was fascinated by the city: its beauty and its problems, both of which are world-class. Detroit has been the symbol of the best and the worst that America can be. And right now, it’s at a historic brink, poised between utter ruin and creative people who see an exciting, unprecedented opportunity to try new things. The character of Cooper Bolden embodies that optimism, and I love him for that. I hope my book will have a positive impact on the city and get people thinking about the possibilities and creative solutions.

The number of women lawyers working in criminal law has grown greatly, (as have the number of women lawyers), over the years. We’ve heard from the local prosecutors and public defenders in Detroit (http://ms-jd.org/blog/article/versus-prosecutor-v.-public-defender1). Is the federal sector welcoming to women, or is it a “good ole boys” club?

Allison Leotta: It’s crazy to know that, just a generation ago, a woman like Sandra Day O’Connor, who graduated from Stanford Law School, could only get a job as a legal secretary. So much has changed in the last few decades. Working at the Department of Justice, starting in 1999, I felt very much welcomed and a member of the team. Half of my colleagues and supervisors were women.  I was given amazing legal opportunities. At age 26, I was flying around the country and representing the United States of America in federal courts from Phoenix to New York to Miami.  The Justice Department is a great place to be a female lawyer -- any lawyer, really.

What can readers expect from Anna Curtis as the series continues?

Allison Leotta: She will continue to tackle the most important issues in criminal law – college campus sex assaults are next –and meanwhile she will struggle to balance her romantic and personal life with her career.

Any advice to aspiring lawyers or writers?

Allison Leotta: Carve out a time to write and guard that time jealously.  Turn off your phone and internet connection when you’re writing.  And – this is hard, but – consider giving up the TV while you write your first draft.  It’s amazing how productive you can be if you just stop watching TV, go to sleep early, and use those extra few hours in the morning to write. 



I also had the pleasure of reading A Good Killing, and here’s a review!

From the first page, A Good Killing was intense, emotional, and many times throughout the book –heartwarming. To top all that off, it has great glimpses into THE LAW! If that doesn’t get a reader law-geek like me excited, not much else will.

One of the things that stood out for me, reading A Good Killing, was the flawed imperfection that Allison Leotta displayed with her main character Anna Curtis. Working women, particularly working professional women, sometimes feel like we need to do everything for everyone, and be everything for everyone –we want to believe that we have it all together at all times. When we catch up with Anna Curtis, she’s the opposite of having it all together! We find her during a crazy mixed up time in her life: she goes back to Detroit to find that her sister, Jody Curtis, is well on her way to becoming jail bait, and she was going through a –I won’t spoil it.  But throughout it all Curtis stays strong. She had her moments –moments of weakness and self-doubt, but she kept her head high, she pulled through, and we ended up with a marvelous display of strength!

The predominant theme was family: the ones we’re born to, and the ones we choose for ourselves. Jody’s relationship with her sister was the familial centerpiece of the novel. It was interesting to see just how far Anna was willing to go for Jody, and in turn, how far Jody was willing to push Anna. Further, it showed how shared tragedy and heartbreak can bring together the most unlikely bedfellows, and that when one door closes, another one opens.

But one of my favorite parts about A Good Killing was THE LAW!! For the legal eagle, this book is a small treat for you! I don’t think you’ll find a clearer explanation of hearsay unless you open an evidence book! More than once I found myself smiling, or nodding along to the legal tidbits, and Anna Curtis in action was awesome! The writing structure was phenomenal. I loved the way Leotta slowly revealed the facts of the underlying mystery from Jody’s point of view throughout the story–leaving you hanging on the edge of the page.

This post has been brought to you by the Ms. JD Journalists. If you have suggestions for any topics that you think should be covered on Ms. JD, feel free to email your suggestions to contentdirector@ms-jd.org, and the Ms. JD Journalists will get right on it.

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