Novelists, Dramatists, Screenwriters, and Poets

Lew Wallace was both a noted lawyer and diplomat and a successful military officer, reaching the rank of Major General. His most famous work is the novel Ben-Hur (filmed in 1959 and starring Charlton Heston). Owen Wister (The Virginian) graduated from Harvard Law School in 1888.

The French writer Tristan Bernard studied law before turning to write for the stage.

English novelist John Galsworthy studied law, was admitted to the bar, and actually intended to practice admiralty law before he turned to writing.

The leading French playwright of the eighteenth century, Pierre Marivaux, honed his observations of human nature through law study as did classical French playwright Pierre Corneille (1606-1684).

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the son of a lawyer, and the radical poet Ernest Charles Jones also practiced law.

Edward Bellamy, better known as the author of the science fiction classic Looking Backward: 1887-2000, was admitted to the bar but abandoned law for journalism.

Royall Tyler (1757-1826), was one of the first American-born dramatists as well as a lawyer and Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court.

Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748-1816) and Philadelphian Richard Penn Smith also contributed to the early American stage.

William Schwenck Gilbert was law trained; his knowledge of law helped flavor many of the works he wrote with composer Sir Arthur Sullivan.

John A. Quinby was an admiralty lawyer turned poet and soldier.

Charles Perrault (1628-1703) the author of the Mother Goose stories was a lawyer by training.

John Luther Long, who practiced law in Philadelphia, wrote the short story on which the David Belasco play and Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly were based.

Charles L. Harness, the author of numerous science fiction novels and stories, was a full time lawyer from the late nineteen forties until 1981.

The law professor Lawrence Joseph (St. John’s University) is also a noted poet. David E. Kelley turned from a Boston law practice to a phenomenally successful career as a producer, director and writer of hit television shows like Ally McBeal, Picket Fences, and The Practice after writing the screenplay for the legal comedy From the Hip. One of Kelley’s writers on The Practice is Ed Redlich, a Yale Law School graduate, and classmate of Professor Stuart Green, who was formerly on the faculty at LSU Law Center. Redlich is also the son of Norman Redlich, former dean of New York University Law School.

Peter Blake (Harvard Law ’95) contributed a script to the television show The Practice that helped launch him as a screenwriter.

John Jay Osborn could lay claim to being the dean of law and pop culture authors: he received a law degree from Harvard, currently teaches at the University of San Francisco School of Law, and wrote The Paper Chase as well as many other books and scripts.

M. Diane Vogt is a Tampa-based lawyer who also writes mysteries that feature fictional judge Wilhelmina (Willa) Carson. Want to check out more lawyer-authors? See this discussion from DC Bar (April 2010).

Jaqueline Girdner was a family law attorney before turning to writing mysteries. Elizabeth Strout earned a J.D. from Syracuse College of Law and practiced for several years before turning to writing full time. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Olive Kitteridge. 

William Deverell, who also created the television show Street Legal, writes mysteries as well; he is a University of Saskatchewan Law School graduate.

While viewers were never quite sure what Ozzie, of the television show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, did for a living, the real Ozzie Nelson had a law degree from Rutgers.

Want a list of lawyers who write science fiction and fantasy? Check here.

University of Virginia law grad Will Shortz is an “enigmatologist”: a crossword puzzle creator. He is the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle and regularly appears on NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Adam Taylor is a comic poet. Maybe that makes him a poet-lawyer-ete.

Australian High Court Judge Ian Callinan also writes novels.

Matthew Pearl (Yale Law School 2000) is the author of The Dante Club and the new novel, The Poet Shadow.

Sig Libowitz (University of Maryland Law ’07) wrote and produced (with the school) The Response, a film based on transcripts from Guantanamo Bay interrogations.

Several Star Trek: The Next Generation scripts profited from the writing of Melinda Snodgrass, a lawyer turned science fiction author.

SF writer Nat Schachner (Space Lawyer) practiced law before turning to writing. He wrote his first story with fellow attorney Arthur Leo Zagat.

The playwright Elmer Rice passed the bar but decided to write plays, many of which show legal themes.

Abraham Polonsky is another lawyer who became a writer and political activist.

Frederick Knott earned a law degree from Cambridge before becoming known as a playwright (“Wait Until Dark,” “Dial M For Murder.”)

Eleazar Lipsky, who earned his law degree from Columbia, was an author and director. He  worked as an assistant DA in New York and saw two of his novels turned into hit films: The People Against O’Hara and Murder One. He also wrote for the stage and the radio.

Russian-born, French-educated Nathalie Sarraute earned her law degree at the University of Paris, Sorbonne and practiced law from 1926, retiring to become a full time writer in 1941.

Attorneys Sarah Caudwell, Steve Martini, Scott Turow, John Grisham, Richard North Patterson, Lia Matera, Louis Begley, Mark Lindquist, all put their legal training to good use in crime thrillers and novels, of very different styles and periods. Begley has won awards for his writing.

Other lawyer-writers include Jim Fraiser (author of Shadow Seed and M is For Mississippi; he’s also been an actor in New Orleans).

Jay Brandon, author of Fade the Heat, is a practicing lawyer.

Richard Dooling, a Saint Louis University law school grad, wrote the novels White Man’s Grave and Brainstorm. Jeffrey Deaver was a journalist before earning a law degree. He wrote The Complete Law School Companion before turning to mystery and suspense novels. He’s also been a poet and a folksinger.

Practicing attorney and child rights advocate Andrew Vachss is another lawyer/novelist. The noted poet Pauli Murray (1910-1985) also practiced law for many years.

David J. Walker was a priest and a police investigator before turning to law, and then to mystery writing.

Other lawyer-novelists include Alan Richard Gordon, Sheldon Siegel, Peter Lance and Loyola (LA) Law prof Yxta Maya Murray. Judges who have penned fiction include “Robert Traver” (actually Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Voelker) author of Anatomy of a Murder, one of the best legal novels ever written (it inspired a terrific film starring James Stewart and the young Ben Gazzara) and Manhattan (NY) Supreme Court Justice Edwin Torres (Carlito’s Way). Law professor Alafair Burke (Hofstra) is a best selling mystery novelist. Former law professors Marianne (Mimi) Wesson (University of Colorado, Boulder) and Heidi Bond (Seattle University Law) are also novelists. Wesson writes mysteries and Bond writes historical romances under the pseudonym Courtney Milan. 

Noted medico-legal ethicist Alexander McCall Smith, born in what is now Zimbabwe, is the author of the very popular series of books about a Botswanan detective, including The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. He teaches medical law at the University of Edinburgh.

Charles L. Black, of the Yale University Law School, wrote poetry as well as legal tomes.

Hailey North began her legal career as a “game show lawyer” for NBC. She published her first romance novel in 1993 but hasn’t given up a day job: she is head of Tulane’s paralegal studies program.

Rebecca M. Hale abandoned the practice of patent law for mystery writing. Her sleuth and her two cats, Rupert and Isabella, solve mysteries in the San Francisco area.

A surprising number of lawyers were or are also poets. Archibald MacLeish, John William Corrington, and Wallace Stevens (New York Law School, JD 1903) are among the better known US lawyer/poets. For a film based on Corrington’s work, see Decoration Day (starring James Garner) Like several other scholars, MacLeish was also Librarian of Congress (1939-1944).

William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) practiced law for ten years before turning full time to writing. Among his best known poems is Thanatopsis (1821).

Mary Leader, a professor at Purdue University, was assistant attorney general for the state of Oklahoma. Her poetry has won numerous awards.

University of Georgia Law School professor Alex Scherr started out as a poet, then went to law school, and now combines his love of words and his love of the law as director of the civil clinic program at Georgia.

Oliver Mbamara, an administrative law judge for the state of New York, has also pursued his interest in writing, performing and producing the lively arts.

Lawrence Joseph is both a law professor and a published poet.

Edgar Lee Masters (“Spoon River Anthology”) was a Chicago attorney.

James Weldon Johnson had many talents, including songwriting (he composed “Lift Every Voice and Sing”) but he was also the first African-American admitted to the Florida Bar.

The early nineteenth century lawyers William Ross Wallace and George Watterston were also poets and writers.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez enrolled as a law student at the Universidad Nacional de Bogotá (Colombia) but abandoned law for literature.

Federico Garcia Lorca studied law before becoming famous as a writer of dramas and poetry. He was a noted anti-Fascist who was murdered by Francoist forces during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). (Other Spanish Civil War sites are available at Yale University Library and The University of Kansas Library.)

The French language writer Marguerite Duras (1914-1996), born in what is now Vietnam, studied law at the Sorbonne.

Carlos Fuentes, the internationally renowned novelist, earned a law degree at the National University of Mexico and also served his country as a diplomat.

E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) wrote many plays satirizing and criticizing the German states of his day.

The English novelist Henry Fielding and the biographer James Boswell both had successful legal careers although they are better remembered today for their contributions to world literature. If you want to read some fictionalized work about Fielding’s brother, also a lawyer and judge and Boswell’s famous biographee Samuel Johnson, try the works of Bruce Alexander (Fielding) and Lillian de la Torre (Johnson).

Wilkie Collins, author of the classic chillers The Moonstone and The Woman in White, was also an attorney.

Victorian lawyer Henry Newbolt was also a writer.

Harvard Law School-educated Richard Henry Dana (1787-1879), an expert in maritime law, wrote the classic Two Years Before the Mast.

Other lawyers better remembered for their writing include John Buchan, Sir Walter Scott, and Albion W. Tourgee. Rafael Sabatini, who wrote the popular Flashman novels, was also a lawyer.

The seventeenth century legal scholar Sir John Davies also achieved fame as a poet.

Britisher John Gibson Lockhart, son in law of Sir Walter Scott, was also a lawyer-novelist, as was Vermonter Daniel P. Thompson.

Trinidad and Tobago native Michel Maxwell Philip was both a writer and Attorney General of his country.

Louis Auchincloss (University of Virginia Law School JD 1941)  continued to practice law while writing many novels, including The Rector of Justin. Demonstrating that law and life are seamless webs, Auchincloss was also related by marriage to the late Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (as is the novelist Gore Vidal who is also related to former Vice President Al Gore).

New York attorney Marissa Piesman (Assistant New York State Attorney General) writes the popular Nina Fischman series and is also co-author of The Yuppie Handbook (1984).

Studs Terkel (Working) was another successful writer/lawyer.

After working for a number of years as a legal aid attorney, Martin Espada turned to teaching college English.

Arizona attorney Richard Parrish is also a published novelist (Defending the Truth (1998); Nothing But the Truth (1996)).

Of course, one of the most famous lawyer-novelists was Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason. Gardner wrote other mystery and courtroom novels as well, including several “D.A.” novels and the Bertha Cool/Donald Lam series (under the name A. A. Fair. One of Fair’s novels is Owls Don’t Blink, some of which is set in New Orleans.)

Other lawyer novelists include Jeremiah Healy (his sleuth is John Francis Cuddy) and Lisa Scottoline.

London born Louis Nizer wrote extensively about his career in such books as The Implosion Conspiracy and The Jury Returns. Among his clients were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and John Henry Faulk.

Doreen Cronin is a St. Johns Law School grad and attorney who writes delightful children’s books like Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type about a herd of cows who demand electric blankets from the local farmer before they will produce any more milk. Her other books include the popular Diary of a Worm and Duck for President. George Wallace is a former actor turned attorney and poet.

University of Alberta graduates Greg Ball and Steve Blackman created the television series The Associates, about young attorneys.

Want to find more novels with lawyers as protagonists (or authors) ? Try Mystery-B Discusses: Mysteries in Which a Lawyer is a Main Character, The Guardian’s interview with novelist Simon Lilec, and The Cozy Mystery List Blog.  And check out these short bibliographies on the writings of lawyer-novelists:

John Grisham Scott Turow

Want to read about other lawyer-poets? See Lawyers and Poetry, a page maintained by James Elkins of the University of West Virginia Law School. Or see the following articles:

Elizabeth Cohen, Man of the law, and of letters as well, New York Times, April 1, 1994, at B8. About law professor and poet Lawrence Joseph.
Jerry Crimmins, A Specialist in all, even iambic pentameter, Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, Sept. 19, 2005, at 3. About attorney poet Paul Homer. “Spoon River” at the firehouse, The Ithaca Journal, June 8, 2000 at 4C. About Edgar Lee Masters. Dana E. Sullivan, l, New Jersey Lawyer, March 28, 2005, at 1. About attorney lawyers through history, including Francis Scott Key, James Russell Lowell, Sidney Lanier, Edgar Lee Masters, Wallace Stevens, Archibald MacLeish, Steven M. Richman, Scott Alan George, and C. Megan Oltman