From BigLaw to BIGLAW: An Interview with Novelist Lindsay Cameron
Lindsay Cameron is an author and former BigLaw corporate associate who quite literally wrote the book about life in BigLaw. Lindsay penned the recently-published BIGLAW: A Novel, the story of a young, overworked big firm corporate associate who gets into hot water with the SEC. Accurately marketed as “The Devil Wears Prada meets One L,” it’s an exciting and interesting read, especially for anyone who works, has worked, or will work in BigLaw. I interviewed Lindsay about her legal career, leaving the law, and writing a novel.
Vault: What made you decide to become a lawyer in the first place?
Lindsay Cameron: I was a good student and I think that a lot of people who do well in school, they kind of get filtered into law school. I wanted to be a lawyer and that was part of my plan, but I don't think I ever really pictured what that actually entailed, it was more that I was good at school and people who are good at school often become lawyers, so that became my plan.
What was it about the legal profession that drew you in?
Everybody's always said I'm good at arguing. My mom told me I should be a lawyer at a very young age. So I thought that it was something that I'd be good at and was something that people who knew me thought I'd be good at.
What did you like most about practicing law?
What I enjoyed the most actually was the camaraderie at the law firm. You spend so time with everybody, you're having, usually, three meals a deal with these people. So I enjoyed going into people's office and chatting, and even when you're working on a deal late at night, it’s nice to be doing that as a team. I enjoyed the teamwork aspect of it.
What did you like the least about practicing law?
The unpredictability of the hours. It's a tough life when you can’t buy tickets to a concert, you can’t really make plans with your friends without that lawyer caveat of, "unless I get an email about work..." You really can't live your life. It's like you’re a doctor on call but it's 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on your vacation, on Christmas. I spent Christmas Eve one year trying to find a store that had a fax machine that was open on Christmas Eve. So you're always on call.
When did you decide you were going to walk away from the law firm?
I had my light bulb moment when I was sitting at my desk at three o'clock in the morning. It just hit me that what people think happens in BigLaw and the vision that they have from the movies… it’s just so opposite of that. So I actually just started writing down my thoughts on what happens at these firms versus what people think in a notebook. And I just kept writing and writing, and it hit me that I wanted to write a book about this because it was such a funny, crazy, mixed-up setting that I thought it would make a good novel. So I just started for the next year recording different characters in that notebook and after about a year I left to write the novel.
Were you apprehensive about walking away from a successful career?
Yes I was apprehensive about it. That's probably why it took me a year and took my husband and my family encouraging me. You put a lot into that career: all the schooling and the bar exam and it was a successful career. I was doing well at the firm. I believe I was well liked, so it was difficult to walk away from that, and the money of course. It just got to be a little too much.
Did you tell people at the firm when you left that you were leaving to write a book?
No, when I told people I was leaving they just assumed that I was leaving to start a family. They were surprised I was leaving law all together. And I did start a family, so it wasn't completely incorrect. But I also left to write this book. I had never written a book before, so it was something I didn't tell the firm that I was doing but I also didn't tell my friends what I was doing. A lot of people didn't know I was writing and were surprised when I did tell them.
Have you heard from anyone at your former firm now that the book is in print?
I've heard from a lot of them, actually, mostly they're trying to figure out who's who. But the characters are composites of people, so I've gotten a kick out of people who say, "Oh, I think that this person is this guy..." People have different opinions of who each character is.
In the book you paint a fairly bleak picture of what life is like for a junior associate at a big firm, but it's also fairly bleak for the partners and the senior associates attorneys who have achieved a lot of success. How much of that do you think is true to life?
I can only say what I saw at the higher levels, but everyone was always reaching for the dangling carrots but it never seemed enjoyable at the next level. It never seemed to get to a point where it go any easier. The partners didn't also look particularly happy either, and I think that was especially true for female partners, not that there were any in my group. But I did attend a work-life balance workshop for women in the firm and when I attended that I realized it was never going to get any better. They had the very few female partners talk about work-life balance and one of them stood up and said, "Well don't ask me about work life balance because I just had a baby a little over a week ago and I'm back at work." And then she passes the microphone to the next woman, and she says, “I did that one better, I had stepchildren instead of children.” So I just thought this isn't the place I'm going to thrive and be happy.
Do you see a way for law firms to change what they’re doing to make it possible that women who want to have a family can still be successful?
The reason I thought so many women left, myself included, is not that women want to have a family, because men want to have a family too, but for women there aren't that many female role models who are at the partnership level and especially not at the firm management level. You have to be able to look up and see someone who you'd like to emulate and say I want my career to work out that way. Firms can hire all the female associates they want, but until they are willing to promote them into partnership and management positions at the same level or even close to the same level as men, women are going to keep leaving because they don't see anyone who they can strive to have the same type of career as.
Turning back to your book, how much of your protagonist Mackenzie is autobiographical?
I have some things in common with her but there's also a lot that's different about her. She's probably more ambitious in terms of her legal career than I was, and we have different educational backgrounds. Although the funny thing about writing fiction is that when people don't know what's true, they just assume that everything's true. I've had people say, "But you didn't go to Georgetown Law." And I have to say, "I'm not that character!"
If you had to do it all over again, would you still become a lawyer?
I would still become a lawyer. Contrary to some of the things in the novel, I actually very much enjoyed a good portion of my legal career. My time in law firms... those were great years. I worked on lots of interesting transactions, I met many of my dear friends and even my husband while working in law, but I wouldn't want to go back and do it again.
Do you have any advice for anyone who is looking to move from being a lawyer to being a writer?
Well, first of all, the money is very different than being a lawyer, so you should think about that before you leave. But usually what I say is that writing is a lot of work, and don't think that your work is over when you write the first draft of something. When I was writing my first draft I went to see a writer speak at a local event and she said every manuscript that she writes, only about 20% of her first draft gets into the final copy that you read in the bookstore. And that is true. The real work comes in the rewrites, rather than in writing the first draft.
What's next for you?
More writing. I'm thinking about writing a TV show, possibly a sequel to Big Law, and I have a couple of other ideas. And the film and TV rights to Big Law have been optioned to Paramount, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that that goes into production. But a lot of books are optioned that don't go anywhere, so I'm really hoping that Big Law can break through and goes into production. I'd love to be involved with that.
You can find BIGLAW: A Novel in stores now. This is the first in a series of interviews with former BigLaw attorneys about what it’s like—the good and the bad—after leaving their firm lives behind.