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A Novel Path

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On Emily Giffin’s first day at the University of Virginia School of Law, the dean told new students that law firms would soon be “scattering roses” at their feet, but suggested they choose a path that made them happy, rather than simply the one offering the most money.

When spring interviews rolled around, “you had to work harder to think of something imaginative” beyond working at a large firm, she recalls. “So I just went with the current. It was exactly what the dean had cautioned about.” (The dean’s speech is one Giffin knows well—she tape-recorded it.) When Giffin graduated in 1997, she faced “a mountain of debt” and again decided to follow “the easiest and most practical route.” She joined the commercial litigation department at Winston & Strawn in New York.

Although Giffin liked the firm and made friends, she says “very shortly after taking the job, I determined that the large firm culture was not a good fit in the long term. I started to think, ‘Should I try a different kind of law? A smaller firm? Go in-house? What’s my exit plan?’”

All told, she spent four years practicing law there, all the while knowing that her “true passion” was fiction writing. When not working, she penned a young adult novel that wound up getting rejected by publishers. But in 2001, at age 29, Giffin paid off her loans and quit her job to write another book full time. Leaving the firm in good standing, she considered law “a great safety net” if writing didn’t pan out.

After quitting, Giffin promptly moved to London (a destination largely influenced by her Anglophile mother) to see if she could finally gain traction as a novelist. There, she wrote what would become Something Borrowed and soon landed an agent and a two-book deal. Something Borrowed became a national best-seller and was made into a movie produced by Hilary Swank that starred Kate Hudson and Ginnifer Goodwin.

Now at work on her seventh book, Giffin says going to law school is “something I’ll never regret.” Her legal skills aid her in the business side of writing, including contract negotiations, using lyrics in novels, and trademark issues related to her logo. “I have lawyers and agents but I also have an understanding of what’s going on because of my legal background. [It helps] even in my personal life—like when my mother has a property issue related to an easement.”

Giffin also draws on her legal training when writing. For example, she approaches character and plot like she would a legal problem: “as a puzzle,” she explain, “the pieces have to fit together.”

Although Giffin’s books aren’t autobiographical, her years spent as an attorney still enhance the stories. “Being a lawyer is an intense experience. You meet colorful people, especially at a Manhattan firm. It’s amazing how often I draw on that period of my life.”

Vol. 41 No. 9

Leslie A. Gordon Freelance legal affairs journalist and corporate writer/editor for law firms and other professional service firms. Former staff writer at The Daily Journal, a legal affairs newspaper in San Francisco. A "recovering" lawyer, also spent five years as an adjunct professor teaching writing at UC Hastings College of the Law. Author of the novels HEADS OR TAILS and CHEER.