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Legally Sound: Ken Isaacson on 'Silent Counsel' (Q&A)

Ken Isaacson's 'Silent Counsel' is available now from Suspense Publishing.

Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Ken Isaacson.

Isaacson is the author of Silent Counsel (Suspense Publishing, $13.95) and has been a practicing attorney for nearly thirty-five years. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and went on to earn his law degree at Columbia Law School, beginning his legal career at a major Wall Street firm. A member of the Mystery Writers of America, he received the organization's Silver Noose Award for his dedicated service after several terms on the Board of Directors of MWA’s New York chapter. Isaacson makes his home in New Jersey, and continues to practice law today as in-house general counsel to an international transportation company.

First published in hardcover in 2007, Silent Counsel was released in paperback and digital editions earlier this summer. Kirkus noted, “… the book boasts a complex story and heart-pounding climax that will have readers looking forward to Isaacson's next.” Further, New York Times bestselling author and former prosecutor Linda Fairstein praised, “Ken Isaacson is an exciting new voice in crime fiction, and ‘Silent Counsel’ is his stunning debut—a legal thriller with a fascinating twist that will keep you turning pages to the unpredictable conclusion.”

From the publisher:

Suppose the unimaginable: What if your child were killed in a hit-and-run? And the one person who knew the driver's identity-his lawyer-couldn't tell you his name because of a legal technicality?

"Silent Counsel" is the story of just such a nightmare. After Stacy Altman's six-year-old son is run down in front of their house, with no witnesses to the tragic accident, she learns that the driver has hired attorney Scott Heller to negotiate a plea arrangement with the prosecutor. But he's instructed Scott not to reveal his name until a satisfactory agreement is in place. The prosecutor refuses to make a deal, and the court rebuffs Stacy's efforts to force Scott to tell her-or even the authorities-who his client is, holding that the information is protected by the attorney-client privilege.

Since the court won't do anything to help Stacy track down her son's killer, she takes matters into her own hands. And she's determined to make Scott talk-at any cost...

When Stacy's stalking of Scott's young daughter escalates into a kidnapping, Scott makes the only reasonable choice a parent can-cooperate and give up the client. That's when Scott discovers that doing the right thing isn't as easy as he thought-and now the mother isn't the only one looking for the child's killer.

Now, Ken Isaacson makes his case to readers …

1) What first inspired you to write SILENT COUNSEL – and has the time lapse between initial publication and its paperback release afforded you any new or differing perspectives on the book?

SILENT COUNSEL looks at a legal doctrine that is fairly well known—attorney-client confidentiality—but presents it in a novel light: Can just the name of a client be privileged information. It asks this question in the context of the hit-and-run death of a small boy, where the boy’s mother learns that a lawyer knows the identity of her son’s killer but is forbidden by law to reveal who that is because the court held it was privileged information.

We like to think that law and justice are harmonious—that what the law provides is just, and that what is just is also in accordance with the law. But that’s not always the case, and SILENT COUNSEL pits these two concepts in direct conflict. Justice would have the lawyer help the mother find her son’s killer, but the law prevents him from doing so and deprives the mother of any remedy.

I got the idea for this story when I read about a real hit-and-run incident along a Florida highway. The driver hired a lawyer and instructed him to reach out to the prosecutor and attempt to negotiate a plea agreement. The catch was that he forbade his lawyer to disclose his name unless and until a satisfactory deal was in place. The prosecutor refused to bargain without knowing who the driver was, and the lawyer refused to say, claiming that the information was privileged.

Generally, when we hear of privileged communications between attorney and client, it’s the content of the communication that’s protected. Mr. X says to his attorney “I robbed the bank. Can you help me?” It is well established that the lawyer is forbidden to disclose that his client admitted to robbing the bank. Not so clear when it’s the identity of the speaker, rather than the substance of what the speaker said, is concerned.

The prosecutor in the Florida case sought a court order forcing the lawyer to reveal his client’s identity. But the court never got around to ruling on the novel question—before the judge reached a decision, the driver had an attack of conscience and came forward on his own.

Reading an account of that case got me thinking. What if the judge had decided that just the name of a client could be privileged information? What would I do if that client was responsible for my child’s death, and the judicial system shrugged its shoulder at me and said “Oh, yeah. We know that this lawyer knows who the killer is, but not only doesn’t he have to tell you, he actually is not permitted to tell you even if he wanted to.”

SILENT COUNSEL was first published in hard cover, in 2007, and has just recently been released in paperback. The passage of seven years has shown me that it’s still as relevant today as it was initially. The basic conflict—between law and justice—is an ongoing battle.

2) Given that you are a lawyer, and thus versed in the realities of the law, how do you decide what creative liberties to take for the sake of fiction? Also, what do you find to be the key(s) to balancing a good story with technical accuracy?

Elmore Leonard said that he tried to leave out the parts readers tend to skip. I think that’s particularly sage advice, especially when writing about the law and about legal proceedings. That’s a good starting point, because let’s face it: The law can be pretty boring at times. That being said, though, it’s very important that the parts I “leave in” are accurate.

When I write a novel, I enter into a contract with the reader. I promise the reader that if she will suspend her disbelief and stick with me through something that is completely made up, I will tell a story that is entertaining, understandable, logical, and trustworthy. I will fulfill the promises I make during the course of the story, and I will respect the reader’s intelligence. If I’m blatantly inaccurate about something, I’ve breached that contract.

I can’t compromise on basic legal concepts, basic rules of evidence, basic rules of procedure—things that if mishandled would make another lawyer slam the book shut and hurl it across the room.

3) Lawyers write – and many would also contend that lawyers spend a great majority of the time conjuring up fiction! – but the novel is an altogether different beast. How did you adapt your style to suit the needs of a different forum? And have you found that these distinct disciplines influence one another?

Fiction writing and legal writing are, indeed, different, but they have at their roots the same goal: Tell a convincing story.

Telling a good story requires a specific skill set, among which are imagination, creativity, organization, and the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively. Successful lawyers have those skills and make use of them to win over juries and convince them that the facts and circumstances of a case compel them to reach only one result—to find in favor of the lawyer’s client. Successful novelists use those skills to take hold of readers, transport them to a world of their making, and make them forget that it’s all made up.

Looking back at the elements of the writer/reader contract I spoke of earlier, I realize that I have to deliver all of the elements in my legal writing as well, even to the extent of “entertaining” the jury or judge—I have to maintain their interest and make them care.

Do these distinct disciplines influence one another? Absolutely.

4) What book(s), other than your own, would you recommend to readers seeking legal thrillers that are both true to the law and deliver as “page-turners”?

I’ve been a fan of Phillip Margolin for a long time. Alafair Burke is another. Sheldon Siegel and Linda Fairstein too. And, of course, Marcia Clark.

5) Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?

What if it were legal to gamble on the time someone else is going to die? It is, if you invest in a life insurance product called a viatical.

DEATH BENEFIT is the story of Elliot Lerner, a third-year law student working a summer job at the Newark, New Jersey law firm of Polito & Polito. When Bonnie Hill, the sister of a firm client, dies in her sleep of carbon monoxide poisoning from a malfunctioning hot water heater, Elliot is asked to determine whether anyone could be held responsible in a wrongful death lawsuit. As he looks into the circumstances surrounding Bonnie’s death, he is introduced to the world of viaticals.

In a viatical settlement—designed to help me if I’m terminally ill—an investor purchases my existing life insurance policy, and pays me a lump sum, which gives me much needed cash. The investor takes over the premium payments, and when I die, the investor receives the policy’s death benefit. But the transaction’s a gamble, because if the investor misjudges how long I’m going to live, he’s required to pay those premiums for a lot longer than anticipated. The longer I live, the more money the investor loses.

And Elliot learns that when that happens, there’s only one way to eliminate that expense.


With thanks to Ken Isaacson for his generosity of time and thought.

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