Jonathan Lee, Freshfields' associate turned author, has just published his second book Joy
set in a City law firm, to pretty rave reviews. The plot, centres on an ambitious but suicidal lawyer, who falls 40 feet onto the marble floor of her office. It's a rather brutal take on life in a law firm
complete with posturing, over-sexed associates, bitter PAs, obsessive
compulsive personal trainers and bumbling academics. It's a compelling
read and Lee's deft touch with the
characters means they never slip over into caricatures.
Lee was generous enough to agree to answer some of my
searing questions about how he escaped the clutches of law to make his way as a successful novelist:
: What made you opt for a legal career originally?
: The promise of free alcohol. I was in my second year of an English degree, mixing HP sauce into a bowl of plain pasta, and one of my flatmates walked into the kitchen wearing a suit. She said she was going to a drinks thing hosted by a law firm called Freshfields. She’d been assured by a spy within the organisation that there were to be no speeches; it was just a networking thing where potential training contract applicants could mingle with current trainees and the Something Head of Such And Such and ask questions. There were going to be free drinks all night. I borrowed an enormous Ciro Citterio jacket from another flatmate (very similar to this little number
) and headed down there.
I came away from the event thinking that law might be the thing for me. The trainees I’d met were very relaxed (they were all wearing T-shirts, for a start, and there I was in my giant beige machine-made Italian tent) and lots of the things they said appealed: the idea of joining a firm at the same time as 50 or so other people my age; using language to argue a point; having money for the first time in my life; and the intellectual stimulation that legal research might offer. And, like lots of English Literature graduates, I didn’t know what else to do.
: Did you enjoy your time at Freshfields, or were you constantly planning your escape?
: I’d say that 60% of the time I had great experiences at Freshfields. Over a six year period, that feels to me like a pretty good average for any job. I didn’t enjoy the horrendously busy periods, but generally if you had a horrible three week stretch with little sleep there would be a quiet three week period just round the corner. So things tended to balance out, and the rewards were not to be sniffed at.
I didn’t like the lack of control, though. If you’re in private practice you’re ultimately working in a service industry. The client is king and, if the client is a big, demanding organisation, you have very little control over your own working hours. That was frustrating to me because I wanted to write but was unable to carve out a regular chunk of spare time in which to do so. If my prime ambition had been partnership rather than publication, things would have been different and I would probably have stuck it out at Freshfields (if they would have had me) for a lot longer than six years. If you want to be a top lawyer, there aren’t many better places to be.
It’s also important to note that they had good biscuits there. And free bananas. Both of which are key to a happy working environment.
ROF: Freshfields gave you a six month sabbatical to write your first novel - was it easy to persuade them?
: I was lucky in that I had a very understanding boss and the team was slightly understaffed in the area of law I was practising.
In the current climate, I don’t know if many law firms would be amenable to the idea of giving an Associate an unpaid sabbatical. Which is a shame. All firms make a big thing out of the fact they want to recruit well-rounded staff who have a deep interest in kayaking, deep-sea diving, church bell ringing, Mandarin-speaking, glass blowing, rock climbing etc etc. It doesn’t say much for the integrity of these firms if they then stick the member of staff behind a desk and ensure that he or she has no time to pursue his or her chosen hobby for the next twenty years. Freshfields certainly expected a lot from its staff, but it said a great deal for the integrity of the place that – nearly a decade after I’d sat in an interview room telling a partner that I enjoyed writing in my spare time – they were allowing me six months to write.
4. What gave you the confidence to write a novel not knowing whether or not
it might be published?
: Writing was the thing I loved doing more than anything else. I wasn’t writing to become famous or make a lot of money (which is just as well...). If my main focus had been fame and fortune I would have pursued those things through one of the more obvious routes. You know: teaching my guinea pig to dance and doing a routine with it on Britain’s Got Talent. That kind of thing.
I didn’t know whether I’d get published or not, but I knew I’d have a great time working on a book for six months. And writing a book seemed to give me more chance of publication than the strategy I’d had in place for the previous decade, which was thinking about writing a book.
ROF: Do you have any advice for lawyers who want to follow your footsteps?
: As you know, lots of lawyers have become writers. It’s eminently do-able. But you have to be comfortable with more freedom, less structure, less money, more dressing-gown time, less free biscuits, less free bananas ... There are things to weigh up.
People often ask whether the first key step toward publication is getting a good literary agent, or whether it’s piquing the interest of a publisher. The third option they can think of is going to lots of literary events and networking with powerful people. All of these things are useful to varying degrees, but the first key step is – believe it or not – to write a book. Most people don’t get that far. Writing can be extremely boring and solitary at times. But if you manage to get to the end of a piece of writing, if you manage to actually finish something, then that’s a terrific start.
I’m on Twitter (@JonLeeWriter) and am always happy to chat to would-be writers as long as they’ve purchased at least 25 copies of my book before approaching me.
ROF: What next? Is there a third book in the pipeline?
: The reception for Joy has been really generous so far. I worried that no-one would enjoy a darkly comic literary novel about office life. But it seems like there’s an appetite for a novel about work – the absurdities, flirtations, sadnesses; the people you spend all day sitting next to and yet somehow know nothing about. Maybe it’s not that surprising given that work is what most of us spend most of our lives doing. Either way, the good reviews have spurred me on to write another, unrelated novel and I’m spending most of my time doing that at the moment (as well as studiously reviewing my Amazon ranking).
For anyone who wants to read Jonathan
and you really should, just pop over to Amazon
. And for more details about Lee, click here