Blueprint JD is pleased to speak with Virginia Super Lawyer John Davidson, a principal of Davidson & Kitzmann, PLC, and adjunct professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. Davidson’s recent successes as a lawyer-turned-short-story-writer have given him a renewed perspective on the practice of law.
Blueprint JD: How did you get into law – what motivated you to become a lawyer? Did you consider or explore any other careers?
John Davidson: I grew up in a wonderful, blue-collar family. My grandparents were Scottish immigrants, both coming to America during the Depression years with their large coal-mining families. They ended up in the coal mines of Appalachia and the factories of New Jersey. Decades later, my father enlisted in the military during the Vietnam era so that he could learn a trade. When I was a child, he put bread on the table by working as an electrician in a factory.
Coming from that background, I didn’t know any lawyers. No one in my family had been to college, let alone law school. I remember being told as a child that I needed to learn a trade so that I could have a good job for life. In the back of my mind, I assumed that I was going to be a plumber because I’d been told that was a good trade.
But when I was in 7th grade, my middle school visited our local town hall, and each of us got to play the role of a town official for the day. By chance, I was assigned the role of the town attorney. I hardly knew what that meant. But all of a sudden, it seemed possible. Why couldn’t I become an attorney? The thought had never entered my head before then. But there it was, and off I ran with it. Thirteen years later, I was taking the Virginia bar exam.
Blueprint JD: If you had an opportunity to pursue a different career, outside of the practice of law, what would it be and why?
John Davidson: If I had the talent, I’d go to Nashville and make country music – but it turns out I can’t sing! I’d give a lot to have a real set of pipes — the kind of arresting voice that lets people almost see your music as it fills the room. Unfortunately, nature has given me only a weak tenor that is merely serviceable (at best).
Creative writing is my other choice. You don’t have to sing or even dance very well to write. That’s perfect for me.
Blueprint JD: How does creative writing and legal writing differ? During your career, how have you reconciled your desire to do the former with your immersion in the latter?
John Davidson: For 15 years, I completely failed to reconcile them. I always knew I would love to write. When I was younger, I thought it might be poetry – I used a poem as a writing sample for some of my law school applications, and I wrote a poem to ask my wife to marry me. But for 15 years, I buried my creative side and worked like heck to build a law practice. I was far out of balance. But then, thanks to a head cold on one bleary February day in 2010, that all changed.
On that day, I was home sick. It was one of those perfect sick days. I was sick enough to stay home from work, but not so sick that I couldn’t do anything. While I was flopping on the couch with the phones blessedly quiet, I read an old issue of an alternative newspaper that is published here in Charlottesville, and I saw an advertisement that John Grisham was judging a short story contest. I also saw that the due date for the short stories was the very next day. So I sat up, grabbed my laptop, and wrote First Church, my very first short story. I turned it in the next day, sure that I’d wasted my time, but still glad I’d given it a shot.
Somehow, lightning struck, and Mr. Grisham judged me the runner-up in that contest. Just like being placed in the role of the town attorney as a 7th grader, suddenly becoming a writer seemed possible.
I immediately got rolling with a novel and a series of other works as well. My whole life, hundreds of stories have always rolled through my head. For me, writing is simply the exercise of reaching out and grabbing one of them. Still, even with that shot in the arm from the short story contest, I eventually let my doubts get the better of me, and before I knew it I was spending 100 percent of my effort on the practice of law, again. In part, I decided that I had enjoyed a ridiculous bit of beginner’s luck in the contest, and also in part, I simply fell into the trap of getting wrapped up in legal work.
But in early 2012, something made me grab one of the stories that was floating around my head. I finished my second short story, Hands, and entered it into Mr. Grisham’s annual contest again. I didn’t think I had much of a chance because I had heard that over 140 people entered the contest. I knew that many of them were accomplished writers or were studying to earn their MFAs in creative writing. I, on the other hand, was just some country lawyer who was so busy raising a family that I didn’t think I could begin to compete with them. But lightning struck a second time, and Mr. Grisham awarded me first place in the contest.
That gave me the kick I needed. I fired up and wrote my first novel in 2012, getting up most days before dawn and writing for a couple of hours before running out to work. Writing a novel on that kind of schedule took me some time, but I made a pact with myself that I would finish in 2012. And in fact I finished late on New Year’s Eve as Ryan Seacrest emceed the Time Square countdown in the background, on my television.
In the months since then, I’ve had a lot of interest in my novel, although I haven’t made any firm moves yet. I’m not getting my hopes up. Right now, I figure that my picture will soon be next to the “flash in the pan” entry in the dictionary. But who knows? Someone has to get lucky. Maybe that person will be me.
Blueprint JD: How, if at all, did your passion for creative writing advance your career goals?
John Davidson: Creative writing has helped balance me. Lawyers can think deeply, but narrowly at times. Every chance I get to write creatively, I feel like I’m stretching my brain and restoring the elasticity it once had. I have no doubt at all that I have become a better lawyer since allowing myself the time and exercise of creative writing.
Blueprint JD: Hindsight being 20/20, given your passion for creative writing, what would you have done differently and why?
John Davidson: That’s an easy one. I wish I had started sooner. The desire always had been there. But paying off law school loans, the time commitments of being a good dad and husband, the pressures of running your own law firm – they all simply overwhelmed me for well over a decade. That was a mistake. I do not hold myself out as having any great talent. But whatever modest talent I have is a gift. I firmly believe that we must put our God-given talents to use. I wish I had acted on that sooner than I did – but better late than never!
Blueprint JD: Technology has given law students a number of platforms to find audiences for their creative or legal writing. Which platforms should law students consider using and why?
John Davidson: Law students should consider what their goals are with their writing. If writing is simply an exercise in catharsis, then the author may not need to publish at all. Or, if they do wish to publish anywhere so long as it’s somewhere, then there are a number of outlets for that. If you want to publish, you can. Small literary magazines, popular periodicals, and online vehicles of various makes and models all give aspiring writers many solid options.
If I have any goal at all, it will be to choose the platform from which I can have the greatest impact on readers.