The right to write? Lawyers as authors
HHJ Charles Harris QC reflects upon legal writing, and lawyers as authors
The urge to write is widespread – less so the talent for it. A small industry is devoted to production of books at significant cost to the author, but with no prospect of significant sales. Few of these aspirants will be solicitors. Most reasonably regard themselves as articulate, though too busy to compose. But, of course, they can always write about the law.
Here the choice is vast, from substantial practitioner works, via smaller volumes on niche subjects, to little books intended to be helpful or amusing. There is polemic, like The Secret Barrister. Then there are journals, of which the Solicitors Journal is the oldest. The Times legal section is, I have found, happy to take short pieces on topical subjects. Then there is the autobiographical legal memoir, traditionally by retired Judges. These can be pretty desiccated. Sir Oliver Popplewell’s books are an exception.
You might consider legal biography. I was given a Life of Marshall Hall when I was about 12, and Lord Birkett’s when 16. I read them with interest when I was 40. But the law now has few titans deserving of biography. Some of eminence write outstandingly themselves, as Lord Bingham did. Lord Hailsham was another. Some non-lawyers, like Philip Johnston, write worthwhile legal books (Bad Laws, 2010)
How do you set about authorship? Is it worthwhile? As a very junior barrister, I was invited to assist with Halsbury’s Laws on Evidence, and later to update Service of Process and Clubs in Atkins Court Forms. A more senior person in Chambers knew the editors. I do not recommend this work. It involves wading through hundreds of references and authorities, checking relevance, accuracy and citation. There was limited scope for personally writing significant passages. If you got something wrong (assuming anyone discovered you had, which eventually they might) the consequences were potentially alarming – the book would lose authority and I would have been to blame.
If you want to write a legal textbook, approach one of several legal publishers. A persuasive and attractive synopsis and business case (who will buy it, in what quantity and at what price) needs to be submitted.
Nothing is quite like the hard work of publishing a novel. Estimates are that between one and 23 percent of those written find a publisher. It is only for the most determined of aspirants. You can self-publish, but that, if well done, involves an outlay of at least £1,000 or more, and the real task is not so much the writing as the marketing. Reviews are hard come by. Advertising is expensive and unlikely profitable. And if nobody has heard of your book, nobody will buy it.
I gave a party to launch Trial and Error in 2020, and sold a gratifying 136 copies – but spent far more on the food and drink. If you do decide to go ahead, with whatever type of book, do ensure that it is properly proof-read (mine was not, a sporadic source of embarrassment), and that whoever is your editor – and you really do need one – is firm, confident and meticulous in their work, and prepared to take you to task where your content or language needs improvement, which it often will.
Do not underestimate the effort involved in the production of an index either, an aspect which seems often to receive less care and attention than it needs. Omission will cause annoyance, but inclusion in unfavourable or inaccurate terms can do so even more. Some people get quite angry if their names are wrongly spelt.
It is said, inaccurately, that everyone has a book within them. Whatever the quality of what you produce, there is much satisfaction to be had from the contemplation of the finished work, a stylish cover and your name, in gratifying prominence, sitting proudly on a sunlit table. It will sell for the price of a bottle of wine – but, unlike wine, when you have finished a book, it is still there – to read and enjoy again, give away, lend, or keep forever more. It is also an amusing exercise to decide between which distinguished titles you will place it on your own shelves. Give it a try.
HHJ Charles Harris QC is a retired senior Circuit Judge, and author of Trial & Error: A judge's experiences, in the law and out of it (Mereo Books 2019)