Author Archives: Nancy

About Nancy

I'm a mommy, writer and lawyer. I've been a lawyer for over 20 years and live on a horse farm in Virginia with my Hubby and two boys. A "normal day" starts at 5 am and doesn't end until 11 pm during which I take care of farm animals, run a law practice, get a bit of writing in and spend time with the boys. When I say I have a normal life, people look at me funny. I'm not sure why.

Ethics in Writing

Every year, Virginia lawyers have to complete a certain number of class credits (CLEs) to remain certified as a lawyer. A certain number of those hours have to be in ethics. Yes, I know, insert applicable lawyer joke here. Regardless, I still attend ethics classes every year. So, I took a course in The Ethics of Legal Writing. I know-the jokes keep coming.

Most of what I write as a lawyer is derivative. I quote from cases, statutes and articles. The standards that govern my cases are often so ingrained that it’s tempting to repeat them without citation. Junior lawyers (associates) draft pleadings signed by senior lawyers. All these things are plagiarism if proper credit isn’t given to the initial author. One would think I wouldn’t need a class to tell me this. Anyway, the class, an opening written by someone who’d commented on one of my stories and using the same set-up I had (prompting a “déjà vu” comment from one of the critters), and a “Daily Kick” from Dave Farland ( sent out on September 10, 2011 started me thinking about plagiarism.

A judge once used a paragraph I wrote in his final decision. His opinion didn’t reference that the section came from my brief. Is that plagiarism? Yes. It’s using another’s words without giving that person credit. But, while I’d see red over someone reproducing my fiction writing that way, I took the judge’s use of my paragraph as a huge compliment. I never even considered that the judge was guilty of plagiarism. On the contrary, I’ve pointed to that section of the published opinion with pride.
Senior lawyers have associates who write briefs (the legal documents we file with the Court). The senior lawyer then may file the completed brief without reference to the poor associate who slaved over the document. In the legal profession, as long as the partner reviewed and retained oversight over the work, his taking credit for the associate’s words is acceptable. Yet, in the non-legal writing world, this purest form of plagiarism-stealing someone’s words-destroys careers.

So, is it that lawyers don’t believe in plagiarism when it comes to legal writing? No, we just have different pressure points. The legal writing world is a bit schizophrenic about ghost writing. Ghost writing is when someone writes for a fee knowing that someone else will be listed as the author. In non-legal writing, ghosting is a time honored tradition. Writers are hired to make famous people’s good stories readable. The writer doesn’t get credit for the work, the famous person does. It’s an accepted form of plagiarism since the writer is fairly compensated for the use of his words. Even within the legal writing context, we accept certain types of ghost writing like the associate/senior lawyer example above.

But I can lose my law license if I ghost writing a pleading for an individual who then files the document on a pro se (i.e. without counsel) basis. A pro se party is likely to get more leeway from the Court than an attorney. So Cheatum hires Attorney Dewey to draft a law suit for him. Dewey then allows Cheatum to file it without Dewey’s role being disclosed. Because Cheatum is “pro se”, the Court will likely forgive some of “his” mistakes even if it would have raked Dewey over the coals for those errors. The Virginia Bar considers this form of ghost writing fraud on the Court and the opposing party.

Maybe there’s a reason lawyers need classes on plagiarism. We often don’t think of ourselves as “writers” even though a large portion of what we do, our craft, is written. Plagiarism is center stage in the information age. It’s not just college students trying to fill space in a paper who are plagiarizing these days. Dave Farland’s September 10, 2011 Daily Kick warns of writing scams offering to review or edit your manuscript in order to steal it. The availability of e-publishing allows “writers” to sell their books to readers before those books have been professionally vetted. Most of the time, that’s a good thing. But plagiarism can flourish in this unrestricted marketplace. Non-lawyer writers don’t sit through CLEs. All writers, legal and non-legal, need to be vigilant about the many forms of plagiarism given current technology. As David Farland suggests and the Bar Association requires, be careful with electronic documents. Don’t send them to people you don’t know.

The Benefits of Holding Hands

Robert Fulgham is known for saying that everything we need to learn, we learned in kindergarten. Writers being solitary creatures forget that everything we need for writing, we also learned in kindergarten. We all think of writing groups as ways to help each other, but we overlook other key ways writers can help each other. The writer sitting alone in his cabin and getting the next great American novel published is the exception, not the rule. Like any other business, writers need to network and market.

Writers help each other by passing on opportunities. I met another writer years ago through an online writer’s forum. We’ve both dropped off that site but stayed in touch via FaceBook and e-mail. Deb’s published and her novel’s done well. She’s currently editing an anthology (Women Writing the Weird). Deb also invited me to submit and accepted one of my short stories. Because she was still looking for stories, with her permission, I sent out inquiries to other writers I knew from the Superstars Writing Seminar. Another friend’s story has also been accepted.

Other writers are resources. Most of us have had at least one other career. I know how lawyers talk and think since I am one. I don’t really know how doctors talk. I do, however – see the lawyer slipped in -, know a fellow writer who’s a doctor. If I was writing a medical thriller, I’d ask him to read the first draft and tell me what I had wrong.

Other writers help you stay motivated and hold you accountable. It’s like having an exercise or diet buddy. After all, who can understand the ups and downs of writing better? Writers need to network, commiserate and, well, get honest feedback about what they write from others who are wrestling with the same questions: is my female lead too weak; my male lead too much of a jerk; Are they believable; Does anyone care about them other than me? And I’m competitive enough that when we throw out challenges, I rise to the word count.

So Fictorians, as Robert Fulgham said:

. . . Share everything. . .
When you go out in the world,
Watch out for traffic, hold hands,
And stick together. . . .