Robert Rotstein grew up in Culver City, California. He earned an undergraduate degree from UCLA and graduated with honors from the UCLA School of Law, where he was an editor of the law review. After graduation, he was a law clerk to the Honorable Anthony M. Kennedy, then Circuit Judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and currently Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Robert then went into private practice with a Beverly Hills law firm whose practice focused on the entertainment industry and copyright law. His first trial involved a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by a well-known science fiction writer against a major movie studio. He authored a law review article that explores the relationship between literary theory and copyright law, and has taught as an adjunct professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, California. Robert is currently a partner in a major Los Angeles law firm, where he co-chairs the firm’s intellectual property department. During his career, he’s represented many well-known writers, producers, and musicians, and all the major studios. CORRUPT PRACTICES is his first novel and comes out this month from Seventh Street Books.
Give us an elevator pitch for CORRUPT PRACTICES.
A Los Angeles church, considered by some to be a powerful cult, charges Rich Baxter with embezzling millions. Rich reaches out to former colleague and star trial attorney Parker Stern to come to his defense. Parker despises the cult, but he hasn’t entered a courtroom since developing severe stage fright after his mentor, Harmon Cherry, committed suicide. Rich claims that Cherry did not kill himself, but rather was murdered by someone connected to the church. At first, Parker doesn’t believe it, until disturbing events force him to question what’s really happening.
As the case takes an unexpected turn, Parker surprises himself and agrees to take on the church. But to represent his client and uncover the truth, he must face great personal risk and confront his own long-buried secrets.
Does CORRUPT PRACTICES arise out of actual experiences in your professional career?
I took some incidents from my professional career and then fictionalized them extensively. For example, CORRUPT PRACTICES begins with the death of a prominent Beverly Hills attorney. That incident is loosely based on the actual, shocking suicide of a former high-powered partner in my firm in the early 1980s. I combined that occurrence with a second event inspired by real-life events. In the novel, Parker Stern’s former colleague is arrested for embezzling from his client. Two former colleagues of mine were jailed for allegedly doing just that in separate incidents. When I combined the embezzlement idea with the unfortunate death of the former partner, I had the germ of a mystery/thriller.
CORRUPT PRACTICES is your first novel. Why did you decide to write it?
I’d always wanted to write in my younger days, but then career and responsibilities got in the way. The nature of my practice—copyright litigation—brought me in contact with many talented, creative writer clients but also many frustrated individuals who believed that they could write but couldn’t. As time went on, I began to wonder where I fit in that spectrum. And I decided that my experience had provided the grist for a novel—the law and the entertainment industry.
Would you describe CORRUPT PRACTICES as a legal thriller, a mystery, or both? What’s the difference?
I’ve seen several distinctions between mysteries and thrillers, but the one that makes the most sense to me is that mysteries focus primarily on solving a crime, while thrillers involve a character’s battle against forces that threaten to do personal or societal harm. Using that definition, I’d describe CORRUPT PRACTICES as primarily a thriller. It’s a mystery as well—there are clues and crimes to solve—but the driving question isn’t “who did it?” (though that is an element), but rather whether Parker Stern can marshal the courage and emotional strength to prevail against a seemingly omnipotent foe.
How does your novel differ from other legal thrillers?
Parker Stern is, as far as I know, unique among lawyer protagonists in suffering from debilitating stage fright every time he walks into a courtroom, making every court appearance a personal battle with himself. I’ve also been told that the novel provides more “inside info” about how the system works than some other legal thrillers. More than that, the novel is really less a “legal” thriller than a conspiracy thriller set against the backdrop of the legal system. While the legal system plays an important part in Parker’s search for the truth, he ultimately has to call on other resources in his fight against a powerful enemy.
How would you describe your protagonist, Parker Stern?
Parker is a brilliant trial lawyer—a performer, really—who’s lost his identity. His unusual, difficult past has been obliterated because of horrific events that occurred when he was a child, and his second family—his beloved law firm—has suddenly disintegrated in the space of six weeks. His beloved mentor, a father figure, has died. He’s even lost the ability to perform in court. To avenge these losses, he doggedly pursues the truth based on the old adage that it will set him free, even though his experience often seems to prove otherwise.
The antagonist in your novel is a powerful religious cult. Is it based on a real organization?
The Church of the Sanctified Assembly is fictional. I once heard a virtuoso jazz guitarist describe how he learned to improvise: he would compose short jazz riffs and then forget them, so when he actually improvised on stage, the notes and chords would get mixed, matched, and transformed. I tried to use the same technique by researching cults throughout history and then in the writing process combining various characteristics of real cults, along with imagination, to come up with the Assembly.
Your novel is set in Los Angeles. What role does the city play in the story?
In a sense, Los Angeles is a character in the novel. LA is,geographically and culturally, an illogical city—accidental sprawl rather than planned verticality. It’s also still a relatively new city, its history as a major urban center measured in decades, not centuries. While all cities have a gritty side, LA’s grit is less polished than that of cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco. Maybe that’s why it’s the setting for so many noir novels—and CORRUPT PRACTICES has a noir feel.
LA also provides fertile ground for the development of a new religion like the Church of the Sanctified Assembly, which promotes materialism and celebrity as part of its tenets. And LA is a good place to hide your past, as a number of characters in the novel seek to do.Finally, the novel derives much of its character by portraying some uniquely Los Angeles subcultures—the movie industry, the porn business, entertainment law firms, and of course, automobile traffic.
What authors have most influenced you?
In my younger days, Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason legal mystery series. I later discovered that my grandmother had these books called the Antique Little Leather Library, miniature books from the 1920s containing classic stories, and I read Edgar Allan Poe for the first time. And Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which is at its core a legal thriller with mystery elements. Later, when I decided to give writing a try, Sue Grafton, Scott Turow, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, James M. Cain, and Henning Mankell.
You practice law full time. How do you find time to write?
I write early mornings, nights, weekends, on airplane flights, during lunch breaks using my iPad. Fortunately, I write fairly quickly and am a decent typist. The harder question is, when do I find time to sleep?
Lawyers have the reputation in some circles as being poor writers. What are your thoughts on this?
There have been some brilliant legal writers—check out the legal opinions of judges like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William O. Douglas, Learned Hand, and Alex Kozinski, many of which read like works of literature. More generally, though, while the law schools try to teach effective writing, law students often want to “sound like lawyers,” a goal that fosters stilted, turgid writing. So young lawyers almost by osmosis start writing “prior to” instead of “before” and “utilize” rather than “use,” and also tend to write in the passive tense because it sounds more “lawyerly.” Some attorneys also tend to write in legalese rather than in simple sentences because they mistakenly believe that “complex and murky” means “professional.”
That being said, I actually found that my experience as a legal writer helped me write a novel. Legal writing is a collaborative effort among several lawyers in a firm and usually the client. So, lawyers learn to accept editing as a natural part of the writing process. Lawyers also work on deadline, so they have to produce a product whether they feel like it or not. And good legal writers tell a story, just as writers of fiction must.
In any case, maybe the assumption that most lawyers make poor writers is flawed. Apart from the many wonderful thriller writers who have legal backgrounds, literary giants Wallace Steven and Frantz Kafka were lawyers.
What makes the law such a popular topic for writers?
The legal system provides ready-made elements just waiting for a writer to combine them into a story. Real-life lawsuits are already dramas. Because there are two sides, you automatically have conflict, essential for a good story. More than that, the justice system assumes that there’s a right side and a wrong side, raising questions of ethics and morality. And most lawsuits are fraught with ambiguity: What really happened when those two cars collided? Are those witnesses telling the truth? Are memories faulty? Why is that document missing from the file? Such ambiguity creates mystery. Finally, lawsuits often involve the powerful against the dispossessed, and what better story than the underdog against the bully?
Are you planning to write additional Parker Stern novels?
Yes, I’m currently working on the next Parker Stern novel. A reclusive, iconoclastic video game developer known to the world only as “Poniard” has released an online game that charges a Hollywood tycoon with the 1987 abduction and murder of an actress. Poniard hires Parker to defend him in the tycoon’s libel lawsuit. When Parker starts investigating the actress’s disappearance, he starts uncovering secrets that very dangerous people want to keep hidden.
Robert Rotstein is an entertainment attorney with over thirty years’ experience in the industry. He’s represented all of the major motion picture studios and many well-known writers, producers, directors, and musicians. He lives with his family in Los Angeles, California, where he is at work on the next Parker Stern novel.
To learn more about Robert, please visit his website.