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Thursday, February 08, 2007

A Lawyer's View of Crime Fiction

Trial attorney John Youney is an avid reader, and he was recently kind enough to spend a few minutes talking to me about mystery and suspense books. Books that involve crime. And courtrooms.

To start things off, I asked Youney who his favorite authors were. Tops on his list (at least right now) are Len Deighton and Patricia Cornwell. “Len Deighton probably writes the best technical mystery,” Youney said.

Next I hit him with a question I’ve often wondered about. “Do you see a lot of technical and legal mistakes in novels written by people who are not attorneys?”

He laughed. “Even the ones who ARE attorneys make mistakes. Most of the time they aren’t practicing anymore.” Lawyers who’ve been out of the flow of things for a while tend to forget or not keep up with legal changes.

Since he likes to read mystery and suspense books, he cuts the authors some slack.

“In my 26 years of practice, I’ve never had a Perry Mason moment. That’s the moment where someone stands at the back of the courtroom and says, ‘She’s innocent! I did it!’ ”

In real life, a trial should have no surprises. Youney noted that all those secrets should come out before the trial. That’s what witness depositions are for. Much of the drama takes place there, where the public doesn’t see it. “If a witness lies in the deposition, that’s where we catch it,” he said. “And if he lies there, you don’t want him on the stand in the courtroom.”

The biggest errors in novels, he said, aren’t in the courtroom. They involve procedural stuff, especially pre-trial preparation. Most novelists compress time between the crime and the trial to an unrealistic extent. It’s not uncommon for nine months or more to pass before a murder goes to trial.

Writers also skip over a lot of pre-trial procedure. Youney said that to be realistic, authors should include at least a segue paragraph telling that the attorneys deposed witnesses, filed motions, and so on. (I’ve found Craig Parshall does a decent job of this in his Will Chambers series.) But Youney says the time an attorney spends getting ready for a trial is rarely depicted accurately on television, in movies, or even in most books.

A lawyer might spend 2,000 hours preparing for a murder trial. Youney said, “I tell my friends not to go out and murder someone, because they can’t afford it.” Do the math. If your attorney charges in the $150 to $300 per hour range, that’s a big chunk of change.

Rules today require mediation in many civil cases before they ever go to court. Some cases, such as medical malpractice suits, also require a peer review panel. Writers often skip these steps as well and lead the reader to believe the case goes directly to the courtroom.

“Mediation takes time,” Youney said. “Sometimes it takes years and years to resolve a case.”
But all of that doesn’t mean a book depicting legal procedure has to be boring. Occasionally clients do lie to their attorneys. In Youney’s very first civil trial, his witness did a U-turn on the stand and admitted he’d lied to the lawyer beforehand. Under oath, he came clean, and the two parties reached a settlement.

That’s what makes riveting novels—the exception to the norm. Clients who lie to their attorneys, or who do something they know they shouldn’t during the pre-trial phase make for good reading. Youney says there are plenty of foolish people out there.

“If a client calls you and asks, ‘What would happen if I did this?’ I say, ‘Did you do it today or yesterday?’ Because they usually don’t ask about the consequences until after they’ve done it. There are enough clients out there doing stuff they shouldn’t to make life more interesting.”

According to John Youney, attorneys live deadly boring lives, compared to what their clients do. I’m not sure I believe him!

Have a great writng day!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Susan -- great interview -- especially since I'm on jury duty this week. Leilani

9:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Susan, learned a lot from reading your interview. Great job!

Birdie E

10:16 AM  

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