Author knows the true value of persistence

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Literary success didn’t come easy for best-selling author Scott Turow, whose books have sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and have been translated into some 25 languages.

“Twenty-five,” ironically enough, has become a number that the novelist is quite fond of, he has readily admitted. His first novel, in fact, was rejected 25 times before gaining a semblance of acceptance, thereby assuring that Turow would be a lifelong proponent of “stick-to-itiveness.”

A native of Chicago, where he still practices law, Turow first tasted fame in 1977 with the publication of “One L: An Inside Account of Life in the First Year at Harvard Law School.” The book offers, as the title suggests, a no-holds-barred look at law school from a student’s perspective. It was an idea he conceived prior to enrolling at Harvard Law. The proposal, surprisingly enough, received the blessing of a pair of editors who “must have been half-smashed” at the time, Turow remarked during a presentation that I covered at the University of Michigan Law School some 12 years ago.

“The book came out during my third year of law school. It would have been better if it had been published after graduation,” he told his U-M audience with a smile, noting the tempest the book created among some of his fellow students and several overly sensitive professors who took umbrage at the length of his literary license.

“Those at the law school either liked it or hated it based on how they felt they were portrayed in the book,” explained Turow. “It didn’t matter that the characters in the book were basically composites of several individuals. Everyone had a strong opinion about who was who.”

In fact, one of the professors, who believed he did not receive the most flattering portrayal, tailored an exam question after the supposed indignity.

“It was an exam in his copyright course,” Turow related, “and the question went something like this:

“‘You are an associate in a law firm. The senior partner introduces you to his client, Professor Perini. The professor has undergone the indignity of having a student write a book about him. Please list all of the causes of action Professor Perini has against the student, otherwise known as Ray Ripoff.’”

Following graduation from Harvard, Turow became an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago, a job in which he helped root out corruption in the Illinois judiciary. He was one of the prosecutors in the trial of Illinois Attorney General William Scott, who was convicted of tax fraud.

“As I have said many times before, in that job I got a proctologist’s view of the legal profession,” Turow quipped. “Believe me when I say that it wasn’t a pretty sight. The corruption was endemic. I have always had certain issues with the abuse of power, so that job was perfect for me.”

From the age of 12, Turow said he “longed” to be a writer. He took that desire to Amherst College where he graduated in 1970 with high honors. That year, he received a writing fellowship to Stanford University, eventually teaching creative writing for 3 years at the Palo Alto school.

“Those years at Stanford were hard, but good,” said Turow. “I was surrounded by a lot of other talented young writers. Not all wrote like Ernest Hemingway, but a number of them drank like Ernest Hemingway.”

It was as a professor at Stanford that Turow began toying with idea of law school, a choice his father “heavily discouraged.”

Whether to continue teaching or to enroll in law school was a decision he wrestled with for months, eventually forcing him to “seek the advice of a shrink” in hopes of resolving the dilemma.

“It really came down to sitting in a restaurant and wondering, ‘If a contract had been formed when I ordered a hamburger,’” Turow said. “I figured then that law school was the right road for me.”

Turow’s first blockbuster was “Presumed Innocent,” a 1987 work that he said took 8 years to complete, mostly while he was on commuter trains in the Windy City. The book spawned a movie by the same name, a mystery thriller that was set in the Motor City and starred Harrison Ford.

“I guess that I knew that I had hit a ‘home run” when they picked Harrison Ford to appear in the film,” said Turow, who admitted that he “remains humbled by the good fortune” he has enjoyed in his literary life.

His success story snowballed with “The Burden of Proof” in 1990, “Pleading Guilty” in 1993, “The Laws of Our Fathers” in 1996, “Reversible Errors” in 2002, and, most recently, “Testimony” in 2017.

“Every day I go to work, I look forward to being a lawyer,” Turow told those gathered at U-M Law School that day. “I really believe that happiness is a choice and that those who look at life in a positive light will find their way in the profession. So much of life is based on attitude. As they say, ‘A good attitude sails, a bad attitude sinks.’ A lot of life can be rolled into that.”

While his journey to a career in the law was “not a straight line,” Turow said his “love of the profession” has been strong from the outset.

“Our profession can be a refuge for graduates of the liberal arts,” Turow said. “It is unfortunate if that is indeed ‘your’ case. You need an appetite for the law to be successful, and I don’t measure success by the bloody billable hour.
Indeed, we are beginning to reach the logical end if you begin to calculate the number of ‘billable hours’ there are in a work week. There is a limit to how hard you can work, especially if you love other people and want to live a semblance of a normal life.”

Turow, the successful writer-lawyer, said that he has one unfulfilled dream in his otherwise storied legal career.

“I’ve always wanted to be a judge,” he said. “I’m not sure it will be a door that will ever open, but if it does, I’m ready to walk through it.”