Freshfields assistant has novel published
Jonathan Lee took six months of unpaid leave from Freshfields in order to complete his first novel, which has now been published by Random House. He’s had great reviews from national newspapers, is still working as a litigation assistant and has started to think about his second book. We spoke to him about mixing law with writing.
mtl: Hi, how did you write and then get your novel published while being a busy lawyer at Freshfields?
Jonathan: Throughout my training contract I was scribbling down ideas for a book but had no unifying theme to write about. Then I went on secondment to the firm’s Tokyo office, which got my imagination going and I decided to set the book that had been developing in my mind in Tokyo.
When I qualified, I wrote bits and pieces in the evenings and weekends but struggled to find the time and motivation to do it every evening and weekend. After months of the book progressing very slowly, I spoke to the partners in my team, who agreed to give me a period of six months of unpaid leave in order to finish it.
Obviously being granted time off like this was dependent on the partners, the team and the market. I was very nervous and it took me a few attempts to summon up the courage to ask, particularly as it felt like admitting to something very personal. I was pleasantly surprised that they were so supportive.
English, Bristol University
CPE at UWE and LPC at BPP
Training contract at Freshfields
Started pulling together ideas for
Took 6m unpaid leave to finish novel
Novel published by Random House
I finished the book during that six month period as I was pretty disciplined about getting on with writing it in my flat. One incentive was a fear of going back to work without finishing it. On a practical level, I had saved enough money for six months and I saw my savings dwindling over that time. Each time I received a PAYE slip from Freshfields with ‘£0’ at the bottom, I shuddered and kept writing. Not that the writing process was a great hardship - I was getting up around 7am, Monday to Friday, but I never worked in the evenings or weekends, and it was almost always fun.
When I went back to work, I felt I had made the book as good as I possibly could do without external input. I followed guidance on getting a book published, read the acknowledgement pages of books I liked to identify the names of literary agents, and looked at half a dozen agencies online. I followed submission guidelines, sending in chapters, a synopsis and a covering letter to agents who had taken on debut novelists writing in similar genres over the last few years.
I was lucky in that, of the applications I made, within two weeks I’d received four responses; two rejections and two who wanted to read more. After submitting the full manuscript to those two agents it took weeks to hear anything further, but I was thrilled when they both ultimately offered to represent me. I went with Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander Associates, who represents Mark Haddon and lots of names I admire. At that point, the process became quite collaborative, and with my agent’s help I developed a further draft over a few weeks.
It took a while to submit the draft to publishers as we had to wait for the right time to catch specific commissioning editors (avoiding times when they’d be snowed under with business at the Frankfurt or London Book Fairs, for example). When we sent it to the few editors my agent had chosen, two of them expressed an interest and were invited to bid for it. Random House ended up buying the book, and following comments from my new editor I did a further redraft and - within a year - it was on the shelves.
Since publication, I have been busy with publicity, including interviews, blogs, literary festivals and readings, which have been fun. It all sounds straightforward but there were many moments along the path to publication when I thought it wouldn’t happen, times when my confidence plummeted.
As law is so different to writing fiction, it has felt weird to keep both going in tandem. It’s tricky, but the challenge of balancing both means I rarely get bored - when I’m embroiled in a dull legal matter, the writing brightens things up, and when the writing isn’t going well, often the law provides the requisite bit of intrigue. Both involve a lot of typing and backache, but they are sufficiently different to provide a good release from one another.
mtl: Have you always wanted to write and if so why did you do law?
Jonathan: I studied English and have always enjoyed reading widely. I knew I wanted to write a book at some point but at the end of my degree, like many English students, I didn’t know what to do and after a vacation scheme at Freshfields, I decided to convert to law, partly because I liked the people that I met working there. They were interesting people. I also found the atmosphere (in the main) reasonably relaxed, despite the long hours. I qualified into litigation as I enjoy the confrontational and analytical way in which you need to exercise your mind to do the job.
mtl: Tell us about the book and do you have any plans for a second novel?
Jonathan: It’s about a reclusive photographer who is forced out of his normal environment when his mother dies. She leaves him a package addressed to the mysterious Mr Satoshi. The book is about his quest to deliver that package, and how he comes to terms with some of the things that have happened to him in his past.
I’ve been thinking about a second book (also to be published by Random House) at the same time as working at Freshfields. Having a ‘real’ job to balance with the writing means, perhaps, that I’m not panicking about that second book too much - when ideas come, it’s a nice surprise.
mtl: Thanks Jonathan and good luck with writing your second book.
If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.
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