The real-life journey from lawyer to award winning author

 March 3, 2016

By  Casey Berman

I’m always on the lookout for stories from the Leave Law Behind community, of people first realizing they want to do something different to those people who take that first step and actually leave and do something else.

Here is the story of Sheila Agnew, a Leave Law Behind reader, former family law attorney and now published author. She has a compelling life story, of leaving the law … going back to it … and now finding her Unique Genius as a writer. I hope you enjoy.


In 2003 I was a new, lateral, commercial litigation associate at a fairly small firm in downtown Manhattan. On my first Tuesday morning, a senior partner stepped into my office:

“Welcome to the firm Susan. How are you getting on?â€

“Fine,†I said.

I didn’t point out that my name wasn’t Susan. I didn’t care enough to bother.

“Wonderful,†he boomed, “we’re quiet in commercial litigation at the moment but there’s lots of work for you in matrimonial litigation. There’s a case going to trial in a few weeks.â€

It was not my dream as a little girl to grow up to be a divorce lawyer. My mind raced to find an escape clause. “I’d love to help,†I said, “but I’m Catholic. I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing divorce work.â€

His eyes narrowed but he quickly recovered. “We also have an opening on our asbestos defense team,†he countered, “where I’m sure you’d feel more comfortable.â€

I know when I have a lost a case. “Come to think of it,†I said, “I’ve always been fascinated by family law.â€

“Excellent,†he said, “the files are on their way to your office.â€

My new career in divorce litigation had begun.


Not my life

That was 2003. Previously, I’d been an associate in international litigation with a magic circle firm in London. I’d spent four years traveling to work in all kinds of exotic destinations like Ghana and Egypt and living it up in Notting Hill when I was home in London. (It wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds; my flat was over the Kentucky Fried Chicken). But I liked my job, I liked my colleagues, I loved my friends, I loved one or two of my boyfriends, I had a great life. There was only one teeny problem . . . it wasn’t my life.

I was a stranger, an imposter, in my own life. I was born to be a writer. But I was afraid of leaving the security of the system.

By 2001, I was on the fast-track to partnership. It would be crazy to give that up in pursuit of the very common dream of being a writer. However, there’s something about birthdays with nines in them that can give you a boost of now-or-never courage.

So, at age 29, I resigned, travelled solo around Asia for six months, and wrote my first novel, a literary effort about a group of female political prisoners on hunger strike (emm no, not a huge market for that one), and moved to New York where I promptly ran out of money.


Going back

I tried hard to get a job in a publishing-related field. With my resume, I couldn’t even land an interview for a minimum-wage job at the Strand Bookstore. I gave up. I didn’t believe that I could really make it as a writer. I felt grateful to have law to go back to, although, as I’m sure you can imagine, back in 2003, I wasn’t feeling super cheerful about being back in a suit, and even less excited by the prospect of dabbling in divorce law. But, unknowingly, I’d just embarked on an extremely valuable apprenticeship for a writer. Stories are all about human relationships . . . just like family law.


Leaving a second time

By 2011, I was a partner in the matrimonial litigation department at a prestigious firm in midtown Manhattan. I was thirty-nine. I quit on July 11, 2011, roughly in the middle between American and French Independence Days. I would love to be able to say that my resignation was the result of lengthy, detailed planning. But I have a habit of making major life decisions very quickly on an intuitive gut level; it’s my greatest weakness except when it’s my greatest strength. I respect and admire Amundsen for being the best of the polar explorers (technically), but I’m more of a Shackleton. It could be worse. I could be a Scott. When you’re thinking about your transition from law, it’s not a bad idea to ask yourself: which kind of polar explorer are you? It will help you know what kind of expedition you’re going to have.

In 2011, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no plan. Those who write by making it up as they go are known as pantsers. I moved to Argentina, lived with an eccentric, hilarious, lovable, local family, learned Spanish and did a stint at a horse farm before moving to a fishing village on the west coast of Ireland where I wrote two books for children (ages 9 to 13), the Evie Brooks series, an award-winning series, published in Britain and Ireland in 2014 and recently published in North America. My latest book, a thriller for adults, called The Exclusion Wars, has just been published in the e-book edition. I’ve been interviewed on T.V. twice, bantered on the radio, presented at conferences and worked my way through hundreds of promotional events.

But this isn’t one of those faintly annoying stories about someone who leaves law and becomes a bestselling author overnight. I now live in railroad apartment in Brooklyn with two twentysomethings. But I’m surviving, with two feet planted firmly on the track.


I did not leave law behind; I brought it with me

What success I’ve had can be traced directly to my legal career. I use my knowledge of the law in my novels; I use the marketing skills, the public speaking skills; the networking habits, the contract negotiation tactics and much more.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. It’s all about the People. I worked at six different law firms in four different countries and one not-for-profit legal assistance group. And, at every single one of those entities, I found and retained the friendships of a few good people, at all levels. They have helped me.

2. Asking for Help is a very good idea provided that you are helping yourself. Nobody feels much incentive to respond to an email which begins, “I’m thinking of writing a book.†An email that begins “I’ve written a book . . .†is much more attractive. Who wants to invest time or money in a start-up if the entrepreneur doesn’t have his/her own money and time on the line? Put your skin in the game.

3. You will never be the right age to make a transition because there is no such thing. Maybe you feel you’re too young; maybe you feel too old. If you don’t have an issue with your age; other people won’t either. They are too busy with their own issues to take on yours as well unless you project it onto them.

4. You don’t need permission. From South America, I emailed my parents to let them know that I was coming home to Ireland to write and that I’d be living for free in a cottage that my aunt had generously offered me. My mother’s response was to take that cottage away; to order my siblings not to enable me by helping me; and, while I was in transit in New York waiting for my dog’s export papers, she flew over, staging an intervention, telling me not to come home to Ireland in pursuit of a crazy dream, “which you have failed at before.†She said that I was never going to get a publishing contract; and that I was nothing but a dreamer. Was I upset? Horribly! Angry? Of course! But I knew that there was a higher power than my mother. She had given it to me. She gave birth in New York to American citizens. I was entitled to the pursuit of happiness, and the Constitution didn’t limit me to one effort. I had the right to fail in that pursuit, and to try again. Over the internet, I rented a cottage in Dingle in Kerry where I didn’t know anybody. My flight to Ireland was one of the loneliest journeys of my life. But I put on my big girl pants and did it anyway. And I quickly got over my anger with my mother; I knew that she was motivated by love, not exactly the kind of love I needed right then, but definitely love. When I landed a publishing contract six months later, my mother was happier for me than I was for myself.

5. There is no right way to transition. There is only your way. I remember reading an article in which Oprah heaped praise on a woman for being so incredibly brave for abandoning her legal career to become a novelist. The woman had only practiced law for two years and she was one hundred percent emotionally and financially supported by her husband. I just couldn’t see what was so brave about that. Sounded like a walk in the park to me. But I didn’t know what challenges/weaknesses/disadvantages that woman had; I only knew that she had them; we all do, and we all have our unique strengths and advantages. Your circumstances are your circumstances. If you want to use them as an excuse for not pursuing your passion, that’s your choice.

6. Be humble and do what you have to do. I worked as a waitress in Dingle where I regularly swept the floor and got reprimanded by my 22-year-old supervisor for forgetting to give Table 9 their dessert spoons. Fine. I meet so many people who want to leave their jobs to pursue a passion but aren’t wiling to accept any drop in status and/or lifestyle, even a temporary one. There must be sacrifices.

7. Be flexible. Keep your mind open to different forms/genres regardless of the nature of the industry you are seeking to break into. My 2002 novel was literary fiction. Since then, I’ve written children’s literature, a thriller, two plays and a legal thriller. Try different paths. Try different countries/cities.

8. Be Patient. My book, The Exclusion Wars, is a thriller about Hispanic immigrants in hiding in New York after a Donald Trump character has become President. I felt full of despair when I couldn’t sell it because of the perceived credibility issue . . . I wrote the book in 2013. The timing wasn’t right. Now it’s just been endorsed by top international author, Eoin Colfer: “Slick writing, a fascinating premise and a rollercoaster plot, Agnew’s The Exclusion Wars needed to be written and needs to be read.†(I’m so grateful to Mr. Colfer for being an Abraham Lincoln).

9. Humor. I would never have survived all of the rejections, near-misses, put-downs, disappointments and failures without being able to laugh at myself and others. Below is a picture of me doing a preview reading from The Exclusion Wars in a book store in Manhattan on the same night as the Star Wars preview. Anyone who has passed a bar exam is capable of being a Jedi. Use the Force of the law. Good luck!

A black and white logo for the abc 7 jla washington.
Sheila Agnew is the author of the Evie Brooks series for children (ages 9 – 14) published in Ireland and Britain by The O’Brien Press and in the U.S. and Canada by Pajama Press. Evie Brooks is Marooned in Manhattan was shortlisted for the Irish Literary Association’s Best Children’s Book of the Year, 2015. Evie Brooks in Central Park Showdown is an Irish Times Best Children’s Book 2014. Her latest book, The Exclusion Wars, “a savvy, timely thriller†for young adults (and not-so-young adults) is available as an e-book at all online bookstores. You can visit Sheila’s blog at http://sheila-agnew.com or contact her on twitter at @Exclusion Wars or by email, [email protected]

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