Five Tips to Writing a Realistic Legal Thriller

by Adam Mitzner

I’ve written ten novels, nearly all of them legal thrillers. It was a natural genre for me because before turning to creating fictional worlds of lawyers and judges, the innocent and the guilty, I was (and still am) a practicing lawyer and experienced these characters in real life. Not to mention that in my pre-writer days (and still today), I read a lot of legal thrillers. If it has a gavel or the scales of justice on its cover, it’s for me. (Side note: none of my books have a gavel, but my most recent — Love Betrayal Murder — does have scales.)

That dual experience — living the life and reading the books (good and bad) — serve as a indispensable guidepost for my own legal thrillers, informing what has to be included and what I need to avoid at all costs.

Here are five things I strive to achieve in all my legal thrillers:

Make your characters believable

How many times have we read a book with a broken down, alcoholic cop, or an Atticus Finch-like defender of the innocent, or a stern judge with a shock of white hair? In real life, judges can be funny sometimes, and petty despots at others. Some cops, like everyone in every profession, are great at their jobs; others, not so much. And lawyers, don’t get me started on lawyers. Being one myself, I know first-hand that my fellow members of the bar are as varied as people can be. For some it’s just a job. For others a calling. Some work hard. Some don’t. Some are whip smart. Others graduated at the bottom of their law school class.

Most importantly, everyone in a story — and in life — has good and bad in them. That should come through — in the heroes and villains both.

Get the Law Right

Before you make an argument in court, you need to know the law backwards and forwards. The way you do that is by researching prior judicial decisions. I have been practicing law for more than thirty-years, and I still research the legal issues in my books the same way I would if they arose in one of my cases.

• Can a witness plead the Fifth in front of the jury?
• Are the lyrics of a song written by a defendant admissible as evidence of intent?
• When can the jury be told if the defendant committed prior crimes and when is such evidence excluded?
• Is the murder of a federal judge tried in federal or state court?

Each of these issues are plot points in my books, and each of them caused me to review legal precedent to find the answer. Sometimes, the answer I found wasn’t clear — just like in my actual cases.

Be Accurate about the Look and Feel of a Trial

In real life, lawyers don’t lean up against the guardrail of the jury box, and they certainly don’t yell at witnesses that they want the truth. They stand behind a lectern or counsel table, a good twenty feet from the witness. Not every courtroom is majestic, with soaring ceilings. Many look like high school classrooms. Fingerprinting isn’t done with ink anymore — it’s all electronic now. Oftentimes arraignments are done virtually, so the prison guards don’t have to transport the defendant to the courthouse.

These might feel like little things, but getting them right lets readers know that the author has lived in this world and is portraying it accurately. It might also give you some knowledge to show off the next time you see something that’s wrong on Law & Order.

Trials are Exhausting — both physically and mentally

On television and in the movies, trials occur in half an hour, and every word of testimony is riveting. In real life, however, they drag on for days, weeks, sometimes months. Witnesses can be on the stand for hours or days even, often testifying to matters that have little relevance to guilt or innocence. I’ve had trials where jurors — and once the judge — fell asleep.

Obviously, showing all that would be boring — otherwise legal transcripts would be best sellers. But conveying that sense of how it really feels — hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror — can heighten the suspense.

Understand Everyone’s Motivations

Perhaps this is just an offshoot of drawing full, complex and believable characters, but in a legal thriller the stakes are as high as they come, but unlike a police procedural where everyone’s motivations are obvious (police catch the bad guy; the bad guy avoids being caught), in a legal thriller things can get much murkier — and they should.

Even the guilty has a justification for his or her actions. It may be antithetical to our understanding of right and wrong, but it isn’t for them. If the story is about an innocent person wrongly accused, special attention should be paid to what that person is capable (and maybe not capable) of doing to avoid prison. Finally, are the lawyers, who are ethically bound by a set of rules that often seem counterintuitive to outsiders, willing to violate those duties to see justice done?

To me, the heart of a legal thriller is that everyone involved — prosecutor, defense lawyer and the accused — believes to their core that what they’re doing is justified. Just like in real life. Getting that part right, being able to convey what motivates each and every character, is the key to a great book — legal thriller or otherwise.

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Adam Mitzner is the author of nine thrillers, including the bestselling Dead Certain and The Perfect Marriage, while also practicing law full time as the head of the litigation department of a prestigious Manhattan law firm. His books have been critically acclaimed for their realistic portrayal of the law as well as for their twists and turns. His work has been named best suspense book of the year (A Conflict of Interest) and a finalist for the ABA’s Silver Gavel Award (A Case of Redemption). Publishers Weekly says of Adam: “This gifted writer should have a long and successful career ahead of him.” Adam lives in New York with his wife, four children and a very, very nice dog.