By Janee Prince • January 11, 2016•Careers, Other Career Issues, Features
In law school lawyers are told to write…write again, and write some more. Many lawyers have taken that advice to heart, and are now best selling novelists; Jonathan Watkins is no exception. This time Ms. J.D. is interviewing Mr. Watkins, about his book Motor City Shakedown, the first in a series of four mystery novels surrounding two hotshot criminal defense lawyers in Detroit. Jonathan Watkins is an attorney, himself, focusing on indigent defense in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree from Eastern Michigan University, and his Juris Doctorate from Thomas M. Cooley Law School. He lives with his wife in Ann Arbor, whom he says is too good for him, and their two sons.
• Let’s jump right into the usual; did you always want to be a lawyer?
Nope. Since around seventh grade, I’d always wanted to be an author. Law school was, in truth, an impulsive decision. I’d graduated from university and found myself with no real job prospects. Panic and the pragmatic need for an actual job skill landed me on the idea of law. My uncle was the only person in my family to pursue higher education. He had been a lawyer, so in a very simple-minded fashion I decided I’d just do what he had done. Three years later, I was in my final year of law school when a life-long friend came into town and thrust a manuscript into my hands. He had written a novel and wanted me to give the first draft a once-over. Panic set in again. I was the one with the unrealized life-long need to publish. Not him. I had to make good on that goal, and I had to do it right then. That fierce, jealous panic was the flame that nourished me while I balanced law school, an internship with the local public defender’s office, and writing the first draft of Motor City Shakedown. I owe a lot of my life decisions to irrational fear is what I am saying.
• In our last lawyer-turned-novelist feature, the featured novel was set in Detroit –so is Motor City Shakedown. What makes Detroit such a, seemingly, intriguing location to set a lawyer novel? Is there something specific about the City?
Detroit is the most hard luck city we’ve ever had in this country. It fell from such a great height, down to such a low place. When you’ve got crushing neglect, poverty, and crime set against the backdrop of a town that was once known throughout the world as the cutting edge engine of industrialization…well, that’s a setting ripe for human drama. To me, at least.
• Both lawyers were solo practitioners, and you did a good job of shedding light on how difficult it can be for young lawyers starting out to translate law school theory into law practice, what would you say is the most difficult for new lawyers starting that process?
So. Many. Things. First and foremost, the job market is atrocious right now. That means there aren’t a lot of experienced lawyers looking to ease their caseload by serving as a mentor to a new lawyer. Traditionally, that’s been a facet of solo-practice. But at the moment things are so slim that you’re not likely to find that kind of symbiotic relationship with an experienced pro, because they’re struggling to get enough work themselves. If you’re looking to get into a firm and climb that particular ladder, well, all I can say is welcome to the world of unpaid internships. Make sure to take advantage of the free coffee in the break room. This is getting depressing already. But here’s some more: crushing student loans. If you’re going solo, the money you might have had to invest in office space, office machinery, legal software, business attire, and all the rest is going to dry up quick when you get the first monthly bill for that ridiculous amount of money you spent to get your degree. Is that enough? Wait, one more thing. You don’t actually know a damned thing. Law school teaches you how to pass the bar exam. It does not teach you how to be a lawyer. So there is also the steep learning curve you’re going to face and the fact that you’ll be doing it with real clients who have real problems and who rightly expect proficiency in return for their money. Ok. I’ll stop. If someone reading this is thinking about law school, don’t let me discourage you. I didn’t listen to anyone, either.
• Criminal defense work can be emotionally and mentally taxing, and we saw both characters deal with that pressure differently, what keeps you going?
Criminal defense work is only for lawyers who really believe in the need for a check against the abuses of the system. If you don’t have a fundamental desire to help ensure that every individual gets a fair shake in front of the judge, no matter how atrocious their behavior may have been, then you won’t be able to last at that particular specialty. Without that fundamental belief in every person’s right to a vigorous defense, I don’t think you can long weather the dispiriting pressures of that work.
• Do you find that practicing criminal defense can sometimes be likened to a mystery as a field?
The first pearl of wisdom I remember a seasoned public defender telling me was “your client will lie to you.” That doesn’t mean that your client is guilty of the crime charged against them. It means that your client is a human being who is pinned down in a horrible situation and very likely does not trust you. A lot of the people facing criminal charges in this country are poor and uneducated. Many of them cannot read or write. Their initial suspicion about their assigned defender is that he or she is really on the same side as the cops and the prosecutor. It’s all one big system of authority to them. So when you start asking them the same questions the cops asked them, they tend to tell you the same lies they told the cops. Getting past that and somehow putting them in a frame of mind where they understand you are on their side and that the truth needs to be spoken, is tricky business sometimes. In that way, it can be a bit like a mystery.
• In Motor City Shakedown, the two main characters each suffer from issues that many of today’s lawyers themselves face, namely alcoholism and anxiety. Was it your intention to shed light on these issues, and what can you say about how the profession has responded to lawyers experiencing these issues?
It wasn’t my intention, no. Issabella suffers from a generalized anxiety disorder because I do, too. It runs in my father’s side of the family and was something I wanted to talk about through that character. Just putting into words what it’s like to fall into one of those sudden storms of spiraling anxiety was a bit cathartic for me. I hate that word, cathartic. But it fits here. Anxiety, whether it’s due to a disorder or to real stresses or a combination of both, is best blunted by staring directly at it and talking about it. It gets stronger when you try and ignore it or keep silent. Giving Issabella the wherewithal to know that she needs to stare her anxiety in the face and talk herself through it was one of the things that made me really fall in love with her as a character who has grit. Darren’s descent into alcoholism seemed like a dramatic reaction to an overwhelming sense of abject guilt. In that sense, Darren’s suffering is more a literary device than Issabella’s. But, yes, the legal profession is riddled with both anxiety and substance abuse. The popular image of the lawyer (other than the one that suggests killing off a significant percentage of us would be “a good start”) is that we’re a bunch of super-eloquent opportunists gleefully rolling around in piles of money. The reality is that most lawyers are struggling daily with the weight of other people’s problems. If we do our job poorly, our client’s lose their freedom, or their business, or the right to see their children. Only a sociopath would be immune to the stress of that level of responsibility. Too often, that stress gets alleviated with booze or pills or some other self-destructive form of coping.
• The role of men in furthering the advancement of women lawyers is very important, and here at Ms. J.D., we appreciate what men bring to this movement. Can you share any experiences you have had as an ally in furthering these goals.
One of the most encouraging revelations upon becoming a lawyer was that the profession is filled with men and women of all backgrounds and ethnicities. I constantly find myself learning something from other lawyers I wouldn’t have expected to learn. Not just about the law, but about their life experiences and how those experiences have been drastically different than mine—whether due to growing up in another country and culture, or because they are a minority, or because they are a woman in a field that has been traditionally male. That’s a long way of trying to explain why I’ve never met a woman lawyer who particularly needed my advice. Happily, I find that I’m the one gaining insight and help from them. Will that change over time, as I gain experience? Probably. I would hope to be of use to any new lawyer, regardless of any of the ridiculous ways we seem to enjoy separating ourselves into factions. No client ever benefited from the presence or absence upon their lawyer of a particular set of genitalia.
• What can readers expect from Darren and Issabella going forward?
In each book, I try to show how their relationship is evolving. The conflicts are always coming from outside. Murders and kidnappings and every other sort of hazard leap out of the shadows and force them to respond. Because of that, I wanted their personal relationship to be a bit of an oasis amid all that tension and threat. Izzy and Darren will never be one of those literary couples where the relationship itself is the plot. The relationship, I hope, is why you want to keep seeing them deal with the latest danger or calamity. Izzy starts out a novice attorney with a lot of self-doubt. By the time readers get to book four, she is neither a novice nor prone to crippling second-guessing of herself. Darren begins as a haunted shadow of his former self. By book four, he’s confronting his past and reclaiming his soul. As long as I’m allowed to write the two of them, the through-line of their adventures will be that of two people who respect each other and who genuinely treasure the company of the other.
• There have been many lawyers who have switched to writing novels. While some continue practicing law, others have left the profession altogether, however, many of them continue to write about lawyers. What is it about the law that makes it a good topic for a novel?
I don’t think my books are legal novels in the strict sense. Darren and Izzy are lawyers, but they tend to get caught up in mysteries or adventures that force them to work far outside of the courtroom. The first real courtroom scene doesn’t appear until book four. That said, the lawyer-as-protagonist thing is a great set-up. It gives you a heroine who is presented with someone in need of saving (the client), gives her a specialized and justice-oriented profession (she’s a lawyer), and offers a smorgasbord of potential villains (venal prosecutors, corrupt cops, evil corporations, murderous criminals, etc.). And in the more traditional legal novels, the courtroom serves as a dynamic theater where all the ugly truths get laid bare in the end. I don’t think the genre is at risk of going away any time soon, for all of those reasons.
• Any advice to aspiring lawyers or writers?
Half-kiddingly? Quit. Get out and do something else. There are too many of both and I need to make a mortgage payment every month. Earnestly? Learn to listen to your own inner counsel. Lawyering is adversarial so you can’t let the opposition dictate your course of action. As for writing, you need to be prepared for just about everybody you know to question your sanity at trying it and your ability to do it. These are solitary professions and you have to trust yourself and rely upon yourself to help get you through.
Ah come on! Some of us love it –the law, I mean. As a native of Detroit, it has been interesting reading books, fiction and non-fiction, that are set in Detroit. There is such a rich culture in the City, and one that people should experience, even on paper. Thank you for taking the time to sit with us and share your experience with the law and writing. Check out the next novel in the series, Dying in Detroit.
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