The Empathy Connection: The Intersection of Fiction Writing and Legal Advocacy

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In our society, when we talk about a woman’s aging, it’s usually in the context of loss. Loss of whatever youthful beauty she might have had at 20, loss of the ability to bear children, loss of personal purpose once children, if she has them, are grown and gone. But there’s something magical and powerful that, as a middle-aged woman, I’ve gained: A stockpile of life experiences that have taught me lessons that I can apply to new contexts.

Once upon a time, I thought I would be an established novelist at this point in my life. I earned an MFA in Fiction Writing in my twenties, and early on in my studies, I began to publish short stories in the literary journals in which my professors were publishing their own stories. I was on my way! Obviously, I’d graduate to publishing story collections and novels because that’s how it works, right? Well, apparently not always.

I spent a decade on young adult novels that went nowhere. I didn’t even manage to land a literary agent. I was pretty bummed about that for a while, but then I asked myself: Do I want to beat myself up about this for the rest of my life, however long that may be, or do I want to celebrate that I learned how to develop a long story? That I learned how to commit to daily work on something that takes years to complete with no guarantee of success, and to enjoy the process and the effort even so? That I learned how to empathize with characters who are flawed—sometimes even unlikable—and help people understand that they too are human and deserve care, justice, and the benefit of the doubt?

I bet you can see where this is going.

As a paralegal, I help attorneys on client matters that resolve in a matter of days (like a piece of flash fiction), months (like a short story), or years (like a novel or, in extreme cases, a series). Even if the client has solid claims, there’s no guarantee that they will prevail.

And, like all human beings, clients aren’t perfect. Sometimes clients didn’t mitigate their damages as much as they could have. Sometimes they made mistakes or used poor judgment, just like the opposing party did. Sometimes, like all of us who are not fairy tale heroes, they have difficult personalities. (I, for example, am a woman who stands up for herself when she feels like she’s been mistreated. That’s gotten the “difficult” label slapped on me more than once in my life.)

And sometimes, the legal system fails people who deserve better. For them, there isn’t a legal system equivalent of the self-publishing option that writers can use when they otherwise can’t land a book deal.

Does any of this mean imperfect clients don’t deserve justice when they are wronged? Nope.

It is a given in the legal world that even imperfect protagonists—and perhaps especially them—deserve advocacy when they are wronged. To be successful in legal advocacy, you have to dig below the surface to understand clients and advocate for them. You have to get past the either/or to the both/and of their story and show why the scales of justice should tip in their favor even if they didn’t do everything right. You have to get comfortable in shades of grey, in three dimensionality, rather than in black and white. I learned how to do this from great writers and writing instructors twenty years ago, and I continue to hone this ability by working with the attorneys I now support. They all set a great example that I carry with me every day, and the reward is justice served.