Ms. J.D. Interviews Lawyer-Turned Novelist Julie James

I stumbled across Julie James’s novels in my summer before law school. I had grown tired of the standard “Which law school is best for you” read, and was interested in something a bit more fun. So I did what any millennial would do; I turned to Google and typed in “lawyer romance novels.” Back then there weren’t nearly as many returns as there are now, which illustrates the fast paced popularity with which the lawyer novelist has grown. I picked up Practice Makes Perfect and was introduced to Payton Kendall; the feminist, employment litigation lawyer, whose mother called her “Sis” because women are all sisters in the same struggle! As I have come to know, Julie James writes women characters that are smart, career driven, and could give a better come back than a 90’s N’Sync reunion –they were outright inspiring. But the best part about this book was that it could captivate any level of the legal audience –whether pre-law or post law school—and still be a fun read for the average reader. Julie James perfectly balances the allure of lawyers yet still manages to provide a very real glimpse into what lawyers actually do. I’m honored to finally figure out how she does it!

After graduating from law school, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Julie James clerked for the United States Court of Appeals. She then practiced law with one of the nation’s largest firms for several years until she began writing screenplays. After Hollywood producers optioned two of her scripts, she decided to leave the practice of law to write full-time. So without further ado…

1. Did you always want to be a lawyer?

Yes, although I was a biology/pre-med major for the first eighteen months of undergrad because I was nervous about the fact that the job market, at that time, wasn’t particularly good for lawyers. Halfway through my sophomore year, I switched my major to sociology/criminology, and that was a much better fit for me.

2. What kind of law did you practice before you began writing full time?

I was a litigator at a large firm in Chicago, specializing in employment discrimination cases.

3. Why did you leave law practice?

I really enjoyed being a trial lawyer, and I was fortunate to have a lot of hands-on courtroom experience early on in my career. (Which doesn’t always happen as a young associate at a large firm.) But I also had an idea for a screenplay—a romantic comedy—so in my spare time I wrote the script and, having no connections to the film industry, I cold-queried agents and managers in Los Angeles. You hear people say that cold-querying never works, but in this case, it did! I landed an agent, and a producer optioned the script. Then I wrote a second script, a suspense thriller, and when that, too, was optioned (by a different producer), I started thinking more seriously about writing full-time. I figured that one option might’ve been a fluke, but after two I thought, “Huh, maybe I do actually have a knack for this.”

For the next year, I tried to write and continue working as a lawyer, but eventually it got to be too much. I knew that if I was serious about making partner, I needed to focus on my legal career. But instead, I chose writing—because as much as I enjoyed practicing law, I loved writing even more.

Then I wrote two more screenplays—neither of which were optioned, and the options also expired on my first two scripts. I began to wonder if I’d made a huge mistake in choosing to pursue writing, but then my film agent suggested that I turn my first script, the romantic comedy, into a book. My first reaction was, “A book? But, I don’t know how to write a book—that’s, like, 300 pages!” But I gave it a shot, and when I finished the book my film agent got me in touch with a literary agent who agreed to represent me. We got a two-book deal with Penguin/Berkley, and I guess the rest is history.

4. What can your readers expect with your upcoming release Suddenly One Summer, any surprises?

As with all my books, I think readers can expect a heroine and hero who think they don’t like each other (but we know they really do). Lots of sexual tension and, because I tend to be dialogue-focused in my writing, a lot of back-and-forth banter between the two main characters. But also with this book, I wanted to go a little deeper with the characters, so I think readers will notice a more serious undertone to some of the scenes.

5. You have eight books so far; do you feel your writing has changed since your first release?

With my first few books, I was primarily plot-driven when coming up with the story. Now, when brainstorming ideas, I start first with themes, or what I want to “say” with the book, and then I think of a plot that works with that.

6. Your characters are very strong, inspiring women. Would you say that they reflect a reality, or what you hope professional women to be?

Reality! My heroines are reflections of women I know both personally and professionally.

7. Do your novels reflect your prior experience with the law?

Generally speaking, my first two books—featuring heroines who practice employment discrimination defense at large firms—are pretty accurate reflections of my experiences. While I really enjoyed practicing law, I don’t sugarcoat some of the drawbacks—particularly how many hours associates at large firms are expected to put in and how tough (and political) it can be to make partner.

8. As of late, whether women can “have it all,” has been a widely debated notion, and work-life balance was something Brooke (from Love Irresistibly) seemed to struggle with at first. Do you believe that “having it all” can be achieved, or do you think we should aim toward something else?

I think it’s more about accepting that it’s okay to not be perfect about everything. I’ll be the first to admit: it’s not easy to achieve a work-life balance. I have two young kids (ages eight and four), and I definitely feel what I think a lot of moms feel: that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. That’s a challenge for me: accepting that I can’t do everything and fit everything in.

And it’s not just working moms: whether you’re a lawyer billing tons of hours at a large firm, or a stay-at-home mom, or a grad student working on your thesis, women today simply have a lot to balance. That’s something I feel on a daily basis; it’s something I talk about with my girlfriends when we get together. And I feel like what often gets sacrificed first is the “me” time, so to speak. Meaning, there are so many things we have to do, that the things we want to do—like read a book, or call that girlfriend we haven’t talked to in awhile, or take that yoga class we planned to start, oh, five years ago—fall by the wayside.

9. Is there something about lawyers? What motivates you to write about characters that are (predominantly) lawyers?

Candidly, when I first began writing, it was convenient to have lawyer characters since I was already familiar with that world. The heroines in my first two books specialize in employment discrimination, so it was a write-what-you-know kind of thing. But I’ve branched out since then, writing about assistant U.S. attorneys, a corporate lawyer/general counsel, and a divorce lawyer.

10. Any advice to young aspiring attorneys or authors?

Don’t be afraid to go after what you want. I started writing without ever having taken a single writing class, and I wasn’t one of these people who always knew I was going to be a writer. But I had an idea for a romantic comedy movie, so I bought a book called “How to Write a Screenplay That Sells” (or something like that), and just started writing one day. I think my friends, family, and co-workers all thought I was a little crazy to give up a great career as a lawyer, but sometimes, taking a “crazy” risk works out in the end. You never know if you don’t try, right? smile

Suddenly One Summer will be out June 2, 2015. Thanks Julie!

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