August 13 – 19: “The Legal Thriller: How do you recreate the legal world?”

This week we discuss the Legal Thriller and answer the question: “How do you recreate the legal world?” Join ITW Members Cathy Scott, R. J. Jagger, Joseph Amiel and Vickie Sutton. It’s gonna be a thriller!


Joseph Amiel is an internationally best-selling novelist, screenwriter, web series creator, and lawyer. His novels also include A QUESTION OF PROOF, HAWKS, BIRTHRIGHT, DEEDS and STAR TIME, launching this week. He lives in New York City, is married, and has two children.

Cathy Scott‘s work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, New York Post, George magazine, Christian Science Monitor, Las Vegas Sun and Reuters. She blogs for Forbes and Publishers Marketplace and is known for her books THE KILLING OF TUPAC SHAKUR and THE MURDER OF BIGGIE SMALLS. She taught journalism at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas until she left her position following Hurricane Katrina to report on the largest animal rescue in U.S. history. Her most recent TV appearances include Investigation Discovery, VH1 and A&E.

R.J. Jagger is a practicing trial attorney and the author of over fifteen thrillers. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers. “R.J. Jagger” is a pen name.

Victoria Sutton, MPA, Ph.D., J.D. Is a chaired law professor at Texas Tech University School of Law where she teaches emerging technologies law, nanotechnology law, biotechnology law, bioterrorism and law and coming soon, cybersecurity law. She has won two book awards in non- fiction. She has written a fiction book, Venusian at Heart, which is a biothriller in an intellectual propery law woe one hundred years in the future, which she hopes to see published soon.

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  1. Having just published A QUESTION OF PROOF, a legal thriller with twists and turns not resolved until the very last sentence, I’ve had some experience with the genre. And being a lawyer by training, I probably have a leg up on legal intricacies. But I would suggest that the legal thriller is only effective if it is a story about the people involved, with the legal system, say a murder trial, being the inexorable peril confronting them. Peril is the essential ingredient for any thriller, and an all-powerful legal system is a fearsome form of peril with some form of loss at stake for the defendant and, at its most intriguing, those assisting the defendant. That threat can run from the loss of something the defendant holds dear to, at its most fearsome, death by a jury’s decree.

    In A QUESTION OF PROOF, Susan Boelter is charged with murdering her newspaper-publisher husband, who was divorcing her and appeared to be on the brink of taking everything from her, including custody of their thirteen-year-old daughter. She asks Dan Lazar, a renowned criminal defense attorney, to defend her. But he faces two obstacles to taking on her defense: He is about to lose his license to practice law due to trumped-up charges of witness tampering; and, more important, he and Susan are lovers. The legal system provides the hurdles and dangers, but they are only the means for exploring the acts, motives and relationships of the people trapped within it. The story remains unresolved until the very last sentence, but that sentence relates to Susan and Dan and their relationship, not to a legal outcome. Readers will be engrossed until that last sentence only if they care about Susan and Dan and their relationship.

  2. Lawyers are in a unique position to come across confidential information—from past cases, from their own clients, from discovery during litigation, from other attorneys and from private investigators hired to assist in case development. In most instances, depending on the source, the lawyer is under a strict legal obligation to maintain that information in confidentiality, meaning they can’t tell laypersons, law enforcement representatives, or others. If they do they can, and probably will, lose their license, closely followed by their money, house and dog.

    Confidential information by itself can be enough to set up a riveting plot. Example? The lawyer learns who a killer is through confidential means and then frames that person for a murder committed by someone else, perhaps the lawyer’s wife, a client, or maybe even the lawyer himself. From that central premise it’s easy to spin into different directions. Will the person framed discover that the lawyer was behind the framing? Will he somehow turn the tables? Will he coerce the lawyer into doing a dirty deed now that the lawyer can’t go to the police for help after stepping onto the wrong side of the law?

    The obligation to not disclose confidential information can also by itself be enough to set up a thriller. Take the conflicted lawyer who’s dying to tell the cops what he knows but can’t. Which way with the internal compass eventually tilt? The Lincoln Lawyer is a good example. The lawyer discovers that his current client committed a prior murder for which a prior client is (wrongfully) serving time. The lawyer can’t tell the police because the information came from his new client in confidence. So he devises an extremely clever way to work the disclosure into the current murder trial and have it come out of his client’s own mouth. Problem solved. The ending is masterful because the audience is rooting for justice and is in awe of the way the lawyer got the right result while still working within the ethical framework.

    These are just a few of many, many ways to inject a legal plot, subplot or element into your thriller. The beauty is that the author really doesn’t need to be a lawyer or have an in-depth understanding of the legal system to set of this type of legal themed infrastructure.

  3. Much of my non-fiction work predicts how the law will be applied in emerging technologies and then I analyze what is missing. This inevitably gives rise to a fictional thriller conflict. So I am going to discuss here some thoughts for creating legal systems in contemporary, parallel, alternative and fantasy worlds for thriller plots with examples.

    A thriller can be set in any of these worlds. A legal thriller is typically a contemporary story – a conflict created by the legal system, litigation or a crime applying the law the way it currently exists. An infinite supply of opportunities exist for conflicts in existing law, without creating a new system, but let’s explore the possibility in these other worlds for a moment. A parallel world would require the creation of another legal system, for example in the vampire world that exists concurrently as in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (a histo-thriller). I’ll define an alternative world as one where the law evolves differently because of a change in events. The Hunger Games (sci-fi/thriller) and the law regulating the games in the Provinces in a post-apocalyptic world is an example. A fantasy world with a legal framework may rely on the regulation of magic, for example, that drives the conflicts like the Harry Potter series (action thrillers, in part). Plot, subplot or element in a story, these are provocative opportunities to create conflict for your characters.

    My book, Venusian at Heart, takes criminal law and the intellectual property law trend in permitting ownership of human genes into a future one hundred years from now. One company has ownership of the entire human genome and can use intellectual property law to block anyone else from using the knowledge. Finding what the company has done with their complete domination of human genes, drives the characters to make tough moral choices that can change the course of society. Interrogation and Fourth Amendment protections have evolved with advances in technology which present the criminal lawyer with different challenges in advising clients. This is an alternative world where law has evolved from a present day reality to set the stage for character driven responses to this alternative future world.

  4. Vickie,
    The Venusian story sounds fascinating. In fact the whole idea of creating alternatve legal systems to govern the altered technology of the sci fi story is thought-provoking.
    Joe Amiel

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