Who’s going to war in a legal thriller?

Two old legal warhorses squared off in "Inherit the Wind."
Two old legal warhorses squared off in “Inherit the Wind.”

BAYLOR LAW SCHOOL, my alma mater, pioneered a course known as “Practice Court.” It was the capstone of the curriculum where third year students moved from the theory of law to its practice in the courtroom.  Other law schools around the country have now followed suit.

The theory of it was that some hands on time in the courtroom would better prepare fledgling lawyers for the real world.  They would come out of school with some trials under their belts.

In reality, Practice Court was where all the students who had spent three years building hostilities toward their classmates would try to get even, pulling dirty tricks on their opponents, hoping to vanquish them in one last gladiatorial flourish.

I learned a whole lot more from those dirty tricks than I did from textbooks about contracts and property law.

The real practice of law is no different.  There is a reason why most lawyers would rather have a root canal than enter the courtroom. It’s hard, unpredictable work.

So when we think about writing legal thrillers, let’s focus on experience, or the lack of it.

One way to set up drama in a courtroom scene is to pit a rookie against an old warhorse. Either character can be the hero.  You  may want your readers to pull for the young kid who is battling a giant.  Or you may want to turn the tables and put an old head against an arrogant upstart.

One of the greatest courtroom dramas of all time is Inherit the Wind.  It is a fictionalized account of the Scopes Monkey Trial where Clarence Darrow stood in the pit for the accused and volleyed with William Jennings Bryan, a man who came close to the presidency and embodied the classic orator of early twentieth century America. It was another spin on experience, two old warhorses going head to head.

Or you can have a duel of young lions, two ambitious rookies who want to establish their reputations, to get a little respect. In that sort of battle, the participants stand in danger of losing track of justice.  It becomes war for war’s sake.

Kind of like Practice Court at Baylor Law School.

Stephen Woodfin is the author of The Revelation Trilogy, a series of legal thrillers.

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