James J. Brosnahan has more than 50 years of experience in both civil and criminal trial work. He has tried, to conclusion, 150 cases, ranging from anti-trust to wire fraud, to white-collar crime and murder. His new legal memoir, Justice at Trial: Courtroom Battles and Groundbreaking Cases has just been published by Rowman & Littlefield.
I had the great pleasure of guiding and coaching Jim, editing his book proposal, querying his agent and editing this extraordinary and fascinating memoir. It was one of my great joys to work with Jim and to read some of the most inspiring, funny, outrageous and intriguing true stories I’ve ever read, all with a dose of Jim’s indefatigable good humor and, yes, humility.
I’m excited to share this author spotlight with you!
Writing a Riveting Legal Memoir
Lisa: Jim, what was your goal in writing your legal memoir, Justice at Trial? What do you hope readers will experience?
Jim: I started with the goal of allowing the reader to enjoy the excitement, suspense, and tension of my jury trials and my Constitutional arguments in the US Supreme Court. And I hope I did that. The book took hold of me as I progressed and I began to examine why criminal lawyers are willing to defend people despised by the general public.
That question fascinated me: why do lawyers do what they do? Which is a view of lawyers I don’t think is available elsewhere. And then I developed the overcoming part of the book based on my medical and early academic issues for young people who are experiencing difficulties and yet are thinking about being a professional, perhaps a lawyer, to reform the system for reasons they know very well.
Lisa: Well, I believe you succeded. Every time I read it, the exciting stories draw me in, have me learning, laughing, riding the wave of emotions that a great book will carry us through. And it did give me a better understanding of the law, of justice of how our system works. I imagine this book getting young people quite fired up!
Justice at Trial is a memoir about many of the groundbreaking, moving, and often humorous stories of cases you tried—the creative thinking and detective work required; the often surprising evidence turned up; the quirky personalities of clients, prosecutors, witnesses, and judges. Yet you clearly didn’t want to make this book about you, even though it is a memoir. How did you achieve that goal? What did you have in mind while writing?
Jim: By creating scenes in the book that describe other people including clients, judges, opposing lawyers, and witnesses, and what they were going through, in the tension and suspense of actual trials that have current interest, for example, the Mex border and refugees.
Having a Writing Routine
Lisa: Do you have a writing routine? Specific times you write? How do you get in the groove?
Jim: I have a program. I start to write early in the morning and write for four hours. It’s a good time of day for me and I stick to that routine. In addition to the book, I’ve written several articles over the three years it took to write the book, which I enjoyed.
Clarifying the Book Concept and Structure
Lisa: How about the process of writing the book…how did you clarify your book concept and structure?
Jim: Early, I realized that the audience is everything. Who you’re writing for, why should they read it, what is my style? My style is the same as talking to a jury, which I have done many times: keep it simple, go to the point, build up a story as you go along, and reduce or even eliminate technical legal terms. The book is written for the layperson as well as lawyers.
Challenges of Writing a Legal Memoir
Lisa: Jim, what were your biggest challenges in writing a legal memoir, and how did you address them?
Jim: My trial career covered 60 years. I always had a good memory for transactions, and that did help me in the book. If I were sure something happened, I would keep the text to what I remembered or, in many cases, what came out of transcripts I had kept over all the years. I did change some names, but I don’t think it hurts the flow of the book, which readers have told me is good.
Tips for Writing Your Book Proposal
Lisa: You initially contacted me for help with the book proposal. What are some tips you learned that you’d like to pass on to our readers?
Jim: The value of your specific suggestions, and your detailed directions, which kept the flow of the book intact but asked excellent questions about possible details, was extraordinary. I learned something very interesting: many rhetorical devices I used with juries and judges are quite appropriate in writing a memoir. I learned to avoid bragging announcements and to develop the character of other people: judges, opposing lawyers, clients, and witnesses.
Toot Your Own Horn
Lisa: I pushed you to brag a bit in the book proposal. You have to toot your own horn and dig up all the media attention (and you’ve had hundreds of interviews with significant media on TV, radio, newspapers, magazines—all the top media of the time). I know that went against the grain for you and it took us a while to get beyond that. For other authors who may be shy about touting their accomplishments, can you share how you overcame that reluctance?
Jim: You’re absolutely right; I went through life allowing my cases and the results and my professional representation of people to be my biggest advertisement, but also, as the book is a memoir, it develops hesitancy to brag by me, coming out of my youthful years, so when it comes to marketing, I didn’t want to. I learned fast that if you want to sell your book, cast caution to the side and explain your wonderfulness to the world.
Writing a Memoir with Humor
Lisa: I love the humor that comes through in so many of the stories and courtroom scenes. Do you have any advice for incorporating humor or tapping into the humor of a situation?
Jim: I think it has to be natural to the person. I’ve always seen humor in situations, sometimes inappropriately, but it’s just my personality coming out of how I see the world. If a person is not funny, I’m not sure they can become funny as they write their book. Lawyers used to say to me often, “Well, you don’t use humor when trying a jury case.” Actually, I did, and there are some examples in the book. You have to be very careful when you’re trying a criminal case when you’re using humor. It has to be at the right moment, very brief, and you have to hope the jury chuckles.
Multiple Rounds of Revision
Lisa: We worked through revisions of the chapters several times. Many writers assume that just one round of editing is needed, but you worked with several people in editing chapters before we met, and then you and I went through two or three rounds of edits. Do you want to share anything with our readers about the benefits of multiple rounds of revision? What came out of the process of revisiting chapters several times?
Jim: It took me a while to understand; you edit until it’s done. And I began to really enjoy the editing because there is fulfillment when a writer picks a better word, like a poet, or updates a scene based on memory or references. As you know, my wife was a legal editor for 14 years before becoming a judge, and she also read all my things, which was a great help.
Lisa: Would you pass on some insights you experienced during the editing process as we refined each chapter?
Jim: You have within you the possibility of a perfect sentence, and you can’t see an editor as the enemy when they suggest a better sentence or ask why something is why it is or is it incomplete. I think your editing and Carol’s editing are so good in this case that when I submitted it to the publisher there were very few comments.
Writing Your Memoir Introduction
Lisa: We struggled a bit with the Introduction. There was a lot in there that you ended up taking out. Can you share any advice about writing (or revising) an Introduction and what you learned?
Jim: One of the significant problems of memoir is people in your family and elsewhere who have been wonderful support but also have their own problems. And I struggled long and hard about describing a close person in my family, but I realized it had formed my personality. That relationship had developed my personality as my father’s constant help in the early days had to be described, it had to be part of my book, it’s part of my lawyering, and I think it’s a large part of my family now in terms of what a father is supposed to do.
Working with a Literary Agent
Lisa: When it came time to seek an agent, you already had one in mind. How did you identify her as the agent you most wanted to represent you?
Jim: She was on the east coast, and I like that idea. She was highly recommended. Her name is Karen Ganz, and indeed she got me a publisher, which is quite an accomplishment as a first-time author. She’s been a tremendous help and I’m very glad I made that choice.
Lisa: We had a long Zoom conversation with Karen after I sent her your query and book proposal. Do you have any advice for our readers about speaking to agents? Preparing questions for a literary agent?
- Who am I going to be dealing with? Will it be you?
- Do you have the time for this representation?
- Do you have any ideas on where we can find a suitable publisher for this book?
- Do you have time to read the book?
Promoting Your Memoir
Lisa: How are you promoting Justice at Trial?
Jim: Well, at 89, I might be the oldest social media guru around. I have followers, and the fun part of that has been that I’ve heard from many people I’ve known over the years—former clients, and other lawyers, and I’ve been able to reach all those people. It’s been a great experience as an older person and I’d encourage others to do it. I have a public relations person named Meryl Moss, and she and Deb Zipf on her staff have done a fantastic job of creating a nationwide tour which is starting now and will go through the rest of the year. My favorite is talking to law schools and college clubs, and doing lectures where my book is sold. So I am speaking in many states and several cities.
Lisa: That’s impressive to be touring the country. I’m curious how many in-person events and how many on Zoom?
Jim: I do 16 Zoom presentations in addition to 26 in-person events.
Lisa: That will keep you busy! And I see that our readers who would love to hear you tell some of these inspiring stories live can find your events here on your website.
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
Jim: Yes, I came to believe everybody ought to do a memoir, maybe 20 pages at least, because if they do, they’ll understand their parents and themselves a lot better. I think I gained some real insight into why I do what I do, which translated into why lawyers do what they do. I hope this book gets into the hands of young people who want to reform this country because I believe every judge and lawyer thinks this country could use it.
About James J. Brosnahan
James J. Brosnahan has more than 50 years of experience in both civil and criminal trial work. Mr. Brosnahan regularly undertook complex cases that were about to go to trial. He has tried, to conclusion, 150 cases. The cases have ranged from anti-trust to wire fraud and from patent litigation to white-collar crime and murder. Mr. Brosnahan is among the top 30 trial lawyers in the United States, according to the Legal 500 US. Mr. Brosnahan lives with his wife, Carol, in the San Francisco Bay Area.