Philip Friedman ’69
Philip Friedman's novels Reasonable Doubt, Inadmissible Evidence and Grand Jury spent a total of 26 weeks on The New York Times' bestseller lists, and appeared on bestseller lists around the world. His cold war thriller, Termination Order, called "one of the best of the year," was a New York Times Notable Book. He is also the co-author of the Warner Brothers movie Rage, starring George C. Scott and Martin Sheen, and of The Pilates Method of Physical and Mental Conditioning, the book that first brought the popular exercise method to a wide audience, called by Vogue "one of our favorite exercise books."
Mr. Friedman has written for The New York Times, Elle, and The Forward, among others, and serves on the Board of Directors of Learning in Focus, producer of the award-winning American Short Story series. Before attending the Law School he graduated from Princeton University as a University Scholar, with a BA in mathematics. After a few years' break from writing during which he served as General Counsel and then Senior Vice President, Business and Legal Affairs, of a motion-picture-technology startup company, and then studied architecture, he is now completing a new novel.
Interview with Alumnus/Alumna of the Month
Philip Friedman ’69
Sole Practitioner And Novelist
What is your area of specialization and how did you come to practice in this area?
While I haven't been practicing much in recent years, when I have practiced it's been mostly in the area that's broadly called Entertainment Law, and within that, especially lately, the protection of intellectual property.
It was during law school that I first began to dabble in movie-making, working on a short film with a college friend who was at the film school at New York University. We had a big (student) hit, and its first showing was in the Vanderbilt Hall auditorium. I took that as a sign to pay a lot of attention to copyright law and related subjects, more for my own later use as a moviemaker than as preparation for a career as a lawyer representing writer or moviemaker clients.
Soon after graduation my friend and I were negotiating with Warner Brothers about a script we'd written, so I remained focused on the movie-business part of my life. While struggling up the long and bumpy road that leads from first offer to production, I took whatever clients came to me by referral. These tended to be writers and the like, which was lucky because they were the only people whose legal needs I was remotely fit to address. The one time one of them got in trouble with the law, I had to scramble to find a law school friend who could deal with the problem well enough and quickly enough to keep my client from spending the night in the Manhattan Correctional Center .
More recently, I took a break from writing to help a friend with a technology startup (hardware, not software). As the company's general counsel I interfaced with some very good lawyers—on the corporate and securities side, but especially on issues of patent and trademark. By then I'd already had some experience with trademark disputes, which was helpful, and I got a fresh education in prosecuting patents in the U.S. and around the world.
Many of your more well-known books such as Reasonable Doubt (1990), Inadmissible Evidence (1992), and Grand Jury (1996) are about criminal prosecutors and courtroom procedures. What sparked your interest to write in this genre? How much and what type of research was involved?
The very first writing I did that had lawyers as characters was a screenplay I wrote early in my career for the late Otto Preminger, about the trials and appeals of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. For that, I spent weeks immersed in trial transcripts and appeal briefs. When my career turned in the direction of writing novels, I was too aware of how much I didn't know about the nuances of criminal practice to attempt a novel set in that world. So I wrote about spies and political intrigue.
Then one day, not really looking for one, I got an idea for a terrific story about a criminal defense lawyer. But I wasn't ready to do the research involved because I had other writing I wanted to do first. Then, unexpectedly, I went back to the movie business for a few years.
When I decided to return to writing novels, I dusted off my old murder-trial outline and gave it to my agent. This was in the wake of Presumed Innocent, the first hit courtroom novel since Anatomy of a Murder, almost 30 years earlier, so it was easy to get a strongly positive commitment from a publisher. At that point I was lucky enough to get introductions to a couple of terrific defense lawyers who were generous with their time and expertise. I joined the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and went to all their very educational seminars. I also got some assistance from a friend with a small law firm who deputized me just enough to be able to use his subscription to that relatively new service called Lexis. I spent hour upon hour in the Law School library researching the legal aspects of my story, which was about a father defending the accused killer of his son - a legal and ethical contortion, which turns out to be unlikely but possible. (Two of three judges consulted on the subject said they'd let the case go forward.)
The result was Reasonable Doubt, which thanks in major part to some lucky breaks, was a runaway hit as a paperback. I decided I liked writing about lawyers and knotty legal issues. This led me to years of research: a lot of it in the library, necessarily, but a lot more of it interviewing prosecutors and defense lawyers and medical examiners and others whose daily lives were the stuff of my fiction.
Other than providing you with an understanding of the law and the legal field, has being an attorney had any other impact on your writing career? Conversely, has your writing had any impact on your legal career?
Being an attorney, and one with experience representing writers, has been a great help in the business side of my life as a writer, though I imagine it hasn't always made me the easiest of clients for my agents or the lawyers who have represented me.
The biggest impact my writing has had on my legal career has been to curtail it. Except for my recent side trip into corporate and IP law, I've been able to take on relatively few legal matters.
My writing has also brought me potential clients, though not always ones I wanted. Most striking was the call I got from an inmate at Rikers Island awaiting trial on multiple counts of felony murder. Something he'd read in Inadmissible Evidence had convinced him I'd be sympathetic, and he was very unhappy with his court-appointed lawyer, especially given the fact that he was before a notoriously tough judge. It took me a while to understand that he was calling to ask me to represent him. In some ways this was flattering, of course. But I had to make him see that any ability I might have to create a skillful defense lawyer on the page wouldn't necessarily make me one in the courtroom.
Novels about lawyers and the court system continue to be popular choices among readers. Why do you think this is so?
Actually, lawyer-and-courtroom novels, while still popular, are a little less so than they were a few years ago. The reason for that is probably saturation, especially on television. When I started writing about trials, the only real success in the genre was Scott Turow (and LA Law ). Then, not long after Reasonable Doubt took off, along came John Grisham, and then some others. And then came the OJ Simpson trial and Law & Order. Now there are lawyers everywhere you look, and a cable subscriber can probably find Law & Order or its siblings playing on some channel at any time of the day or night. So it's harder for a novel to offer a reader anything really fresh in the way of legal issues.
As for why the criminal justice system is such a popular setting across the entertainment spectrum, I think it has a lot to do with the inherent drama of adversarial combat, and the opportunity courtroom stories offer for intense (sometimes soap-operatic) personal interactions. The criminal courtroom, especially if the crime is some degree of murder or manslaughter, is the closest thing to real-life theater we have: it implicates the strongest emotions and the most gripping conflicts, and of course the highest stakes—liberty or even life itself.
For me, the question isn't so much why people are interested; it's that this didn't happen sooner. And I think one reason the genre has taken hold over the past decade or so is the turn toward authenticity. Perry Mason was fun to watch, but it wasn't something you could really care about, or think about, or that touched your life in any way.
What do you believe are the greatest strengths and weaknesses of our justice system? Has your personal view changed throughout the years as a result of your research and writing?
To my mind, the greatest strengths and the greatest weaknesses of the criminal justice system are the people who work in it. Much is often made of the U.S. as a society of "laws, not men" (in the old, politically incorrect formulation). But in truth thze system of laws is only as good as the people who carry it out. There are admirable and conscientious folks on the prosecutorial side and on the defense side, and they raise the system to its heights. But there is also venality, laziness, power-hunger, willful blindness and a host of other human failings whose effect is magnified when people's liberty and very lives are at stake. Sadly, in some instances that goes right to the top of the system.
The tension between the strengths and weaknesses of our criminal justice system is perhaps best illustrated for me by the Innocence Project - a group of lawyers and paralegals and students whose work is in every way laudable, but that is necessary only because of the unconscionable number of people who have been wrongly convicted as a result of hasty arrests and prosecutions, inadequate defenses, or both.
Or consider the story of a recent alumna of the month, Vanita Gupta ('01), who coordinated the legal drive to free the three dozen people wrongfully convicted of and incarcerated for drug offenses in Tulia, Texas, apparently on the evidence of single police officer widely known to be unreliable. Once again, the best and the worst. And unfortunately it seems that the best are still having trouble keeping up with the human damage caused by the worst.
One of your novels, Act of Love, Act of War (1979), which was republished in 1994 under the title Wall of Silence, dealt with the conspiracy surrounding the assassination of John Kennedy. Are there events happening today that you would consider (or are perhaps currently considering) using in another novel?
First, for its multiplicity of conspiracy theories and the loving detail with which they've been explored and advocated by people all over the country and around the world, the assassination of John Kennedy is to an extent sui generis. However, that doesn't make it the same kind of threat to our way of life or our system of government as any of several more recent instances of partisan conspiracy, political skullduggery and duplicity, and even criminality in the highest places. Some of this has found itself into my writing in the past, whether it be in a novel of political intrigue or a "legal" novel. But, mostly, having considered such events and ideas, I pick something else to write about. Current political events do figure in the novel I'm working on now, but they aren't its focus.
Who are your role models in the legal profession - and why?
When I was negotiating that very first deal with Warner Brothers I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the late Mortimer Becker, a labor lawyer turned entertainment lawyer. He represented The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) and other entertainment unions, as well as a host of famous artists, from Woody Allen and George C. Scott to Steve and Eydie. He was a model of integrity and generosity, with an uncanny ability to see what was best for a client and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to make the client understand and accept it. I learned a tremendous amount from him about a lawyer's responsibility to his clients and the ways in which that should be honored.
Since then it's been my privilege to meet and work with prosecutors and defense lawyers who have impressed me with their conscientious devotion to the work they do. And I've been lucky to be represented by lawyers of great skill, intelligence and integrity. I don't know if, as a lawyer, I could live up to the standard these men and women set. But I do try to embody some of their admirable qualities in my characters.
Who are your favorite authors-and why?
This is a hard one. The authors I like to read change from time to time, and I find I'm more likely to have favorite books than favorite authors. Leaving aside Dostoevsky and Shakespeare, who are always on the list, and concentrating on more modern folk closer to the kind of thing I write (but not too close): Lawrence Block never fails to divert and entertain and even enlighten. Ditto Donald Westlake in all his incarnations. Alan Furst is an interesting writer whose books I've looked forward to recently. I've always thought of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as a stunning piece of work, the Platonic ideal of the spy novel, and I like many of LeCarre's other novels as well. I could go on.
Several of our other ALMOs have stated that if they could choose another profession to be in they would be writers. What profession would you choose?
After writing and lawyering, my choice would be architecture. Architecture and design have fascinated me at least since high school. A couple of years ago I enrolled in the six-week intensive summer program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and enjoyed every minute of it. It was hard to resist the temptation to apply to a graduate architecture program, nonsensical as that would be at this point in my career and life.
What advice would you give to current law students who are considering careers as criminal prosecutors or defenders?
First, ponder carefully the effects of a lifetime's constant exposure to the underside of human nature and the effects of personal tragedy. Talk to prosecutors and defenders about how it affects them. If you still want to go ahead, then in addition to your criminal law courses, clinics, internships, and summer jobs, find a way to learn at least the rudiments of narrative structure and of salesmanship. And read my books.