Saturday , September 26 2020
A lawyer-turned-novelist talks about the career change and his new book.

An Interview With Ron Liebman About His Novel, Jersey Law

There was a time when I was reading lots of legal thrillers, be it John Grisham or Scott Turow (who I think better than Grisham as I wrote about here) and a few others but, like many based on the best-seller lists, after a while that got old.

I mention this to explain why, when I received Jersey Law I hesitated. I had recently interviewed two lawyers who had written their first novels — Alison Leota and Marcia Clark — and didn’t want to get stuck in a reading rut.

But I gave Ron Liebman’s new novel a chance and found it amusing. Whereas many legal writers take their work very seriously (perhaps too seriously) this author instead mines the humor of the profession and has fun with the genre and the topics.

I decided to do this interview and I’m glad I did. This book is a fun read. Even if you don’t normally like legal thrillers this one is different and well worth checking out.

Can you describe for the readers of this interview the two main lawyers, Mickie and “Junne”? How are you similar and different from these two?

Mickie and Junne are the closest of friends, and having met in grade school, stayed close through high school, where both were athletes, though only acceptable scholars.  They both then became cops and while on the force attended night law school together, passing the Bar by the skin of their teeth.   They are first generation Americans, from Italian immigrant working-class families.  Junne is gay and trying his best to deal with it, given the anti-gay Italian American culture he comes from. 

Mickie too struggles with his best friend’s sexual orientation.  It’s simply difficult for him to accept Junne’s gayness.  But these guys are far from bumblers; they are very street smart and, though they do manage to get themselves into one pickle after another, the one thing they are really good at is winning jury trials.  They are the perfect fit for the kind of bad to the bone clientele that comes to them.  And I love hanging out with them.

I don’t have much, if anything, in common with Mickie and Junne.  I was a federal prosecutor of mostly white-collar, so-called high profile cases (U.S. vs. Vice President Spiro Agnew; U.S. vs. Governor Marvin Mandel).  I spent the overwhelming majority of my private practice career in large national and international law firms, where I handled civil and criminal matters, mostly for corporations and, on occasion, foreign governmental and private interests. 

I did grow up in a largely immigrant working-class neighborhood in Baltimore, so I get Camden, and I had more than enough opportunities back then to observe some colorful characters that inspired some of the traits I injected into my various characters. 

I’m a straight author whose narrator is a gay guy.  I found that a fascinating challenge, trying to get that right.  I hope I did.

This is the second book in a series, right? Is it important to read them in order? Are you planning further adventures for these two
and, if so, can you give us a hint about what is to come for them?

Both books were written as stand alone stories, so you can read one and not the other, or both, in pretty much either order.  My intention is to keep Mickie and Junne around.  The new novel I am currently plotting has both guys in the story, but in minor roles next time out.  After that, I would like to put them back on center stage for a new story.

How much have you pulled from your own court cases or those you have heard about through colleagues and the news media to write these novels?

When I was a young prosecutor, before I was tapped for membership in my office’s public corruption team, I did handle a few nasty street crime cases, e.g. bank robberies, crimes on federal terrain.  And like a lot of  litigators who love the courtroom, I would hang out and watch other cases before and after my cases were called, most especially juicy drug prosecutions, murders, etc.  I have pulled bits and pieces from news stories as well.  The rest, I guess, is a product of my imagination.

I enjoyed these stories but I have a dilemma: I really dislike Nancy Grace for some of the reasons spelled out in this New York Times piece (it’s the former journalist in me that is irked by her and her program really.) Anyway, Grace likes you and I don’t like her so does that mean
I can’t like you too? Yes, I’m at least half-kidding. For the record, here’s her blurb: “Being a lawyer never looked so good… or so dangerous. Mickie and Junne are outright heroes. But a warning: If you hate lawyers now, you’ll love them after Jersey Law.”

I realize that Nancy Grace and her show have their detractors, as well as their supporters.  Her show has undeniably achieved a national audience.  She has a sharp tongue, there is no denying that, and she may well be controversial in some quarters — though not to her fans.  She read Jersey Law, liked it and then gave me a nice blurb.  I am grateful to her.  She has always treated me in a professional and friendly way.

You did something daring and pulled it off and it’s what Graceless, above, alludes to, namely you managed to make defense
lawyers likeable. Not an easy thing to pull off considering the low public opinion of defense attorneys. So a two part question: First,
was that something you thought about – the public perception of lawyers as somewhere between journalists and grave robbers and the IRS – as you wrote this? Second part, why do you think the public has such a low opinion of lawyers? Is it the fault of legal tv shows? Or is it just the nature of the public questioning an accused criminal’s right to a defense?

Let me try and answer your second question first:  Defense lawyers are seen — on TV and in real life — as championing people accused quite often of horrible crimes.  And, from time to time, the good ones (and the lucky ones) even manage to get some of their clients off, some who may indeed be innocent of what they were charged with, and some actually guilty.  I firmly believe in our system of justice.  Every citizen has a right to a lawyer, someone who will fight for him/her, test the quality of the evidence the prosecution has, and test the way in which the evidence was gathered and presented in court. 

When the defense lawyer becomes the jury and decides who is guilty and deserving of punishment, and who is not, and then decides not to take on a defense, the system breaks down.  If that happens, sure some otherwise guilty people will ultimately get their just desserts, but some innocent people, accused unfairly or improperly, will not have a lawyer of his/her choosing to turn to who can defend their interests in court.

As for the first part of your question:  Yeah, so many of the defense lawyers we see, in televised courtrooms, in front of the cameras outside the courthouse, on Nancy Grace, do indeed seem like poster children for the odious defense lawyers so many folks have grown to hate.  And this image has been beautifully and effectively portrayed in TV show after TV show.  

In creating my lawyer characters I didn’t really focus on trying to rehabilitate the defense bar  (Lawyer Dumpy Brown’s a pretty badass character, with little or no redeeming qualities.  Still, I like his style, his garish dress, his evil street ways.)  Mickie and Junne will undertake the representation of just about anyone, no matter whom, no matter the crime.  That’s what lawyers like they are do.  But they’re good guys.   And with only one exception so far, they may get close to the line, but they don’t actually cross it.

You have since left legal work to write full-time, right? What parts of being a lawyer do you miss and what parts do you not miss?

I miss the camaraderie.  I miss the courtroom.  I don’t miss the need to keep a hawk’s eye on billable hours.  I don’t miss the pomposity of some of my former colleagues.

You are the third lawyer-turned-novelist I have interviewed within the last year. Do you have any thoughts on Marcia Clark’s attempt at a legal novel or Alison Leota’s? What novelists who were/are former lawyers are your favorites? To what do you attribute the popularity of this genre?

I haven’t read anything by Marcia Clark or Allison Leota.  I, of course, remember Marcia Clark as one the prosecutors in the ill-fated O.J. Simpson trial and I have seen her on TV.  I had never heard of Allsion Leota and her novel, until you mentioned her, but after looking her up, I’m going to read her book.  As for my favorites, Scott Turow is still the king of the hill.  Elmore Leonard, though as best I know not a lawyer, is my crime writer idol.  There simply is no one better at getting a character to come alive in the fewest of words. A large and ever growing segment of the reading public loves stories about crimes and courtroom lawyers. Who better to feed that hunger than lawyers who have the knack for writing and have walked the walk. (I know, mixed metaphor, but it makes the point.)

I recently interviewed Brad Parks, a journalist-turned-novelist. Since you both base your books in New  Jersey I emailed him to see if he had any questions he wanted me to ask you. Here’s what he came up with, can you respond to his query?
“If I’m not mistaken, Ron sets his stuff in Camden, which is an even tougher town than Newark — probably the toughest town in New Jersey. So, yeah, I suppose you can ask him if he’s trying to show up the rest of the authors who use more genteel New Jersey locales. Also, I think Camden just laid off some absurd percentage of its police force. Ask him if he keeps in touch with any law enforcement folks there and what their anxiety level is.”

I actually had a case in Camden, New Jersey, though it was nothing like the cases in my two novels.  When I set foot in Camden, and then spent some time there as my case progressed through the criminal justice system, when I saw the Camden County Jail from the inside (really bad, though tolerable when you’re the one who can leave after the client interview), took in the seediness and serious down-and-out look of Camden, I knew I had a locale for my stories.  Parts of the Baltimore of my youth helped me get the feel of Camden, so I chose it as my setting.  I have been following Camden’s economic woes and the laying off of cops (some apparently have been re-hired), but I’m not in touch with any of them.  Believe me, Camden is a place that needs cops.

I will end with what I call my bonus question: What questions do you wish interviewers would ask you that you haven’t been asked? Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.

You pretty much covered it. 

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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