From corporate practice to murder and intrigue: Novelist alum gave up lawyering to pursue dream

BY ZACHARY PRICE

Did nothing at the World of Law panels strike your fancy? Do both corporate law and public interest leave you cold? Maybe there’s a possibility you haven’t considered: You could be a novelist.

Take the example of Amy Gutman ’93. After a four-year stint as a corporate attorney, Gutman quit her job and wrote a novel. Her book, “Equivocal Death,” which Gutman described to the RECORD as both a “thriller” and an exploration of “deeper themes” relating to career and lifestyle choices, including the “issues women encounter at work,” was released last month. It has already be-come a regional best-seller in the Cleveland area and re-ceived positive reviews from major writers. Nelson DeMille, author of “The General’s Daughter” and “The Lion’s Game,” has called it “a smart and powerful novel of suspense from a gifted new writer.”

Gutman will be reading from her book, signing copies and answering questions at the Harvard Square COOP on Tuesday, Feb. 20, at 7 p.m.

If you have any doubts about corporate legal work, Gutman’s novel may give you more. The protagonist of the novel is a young associate who discovers that the partner she has been assigned to work with on a high-profile sexual harassment case has been murdered. In addition to murder-mystery suspense, the book offers a portrait of life in a high-powered law firm.

Gutman explained: “The term ‘equivocal death’ is a term of art that’s used in homicide investigation that refers to a crime-scene that’s ambiguous, meaning that it’s unclear initially whether it’s a suicide or a homicide …. That became integral to my plot. But the second meaning of the phrase was a metaphoric notion of, are you really living? Is this an authentic life, or are you in some ways living only a half way? Is it more akin to a sort of death?”

Gutman speaks from experience. Though before law school she worked as a journalist and was the founding director of the Mississippi Teacher Corps, a program that recruits recent college graduates to teach in rural schools, Gutman chose to work at the New York City firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore after law school.

“I’d always been intrigued by seeing new worlds,” Gutman said. “For me, given my background, I interviewed at a lot of these firms on a lark. When I got an offer at Cravath – it was just, you mean, I could go there? The opportunity to be on the inside of a place like that! At that point, it wasn’t that I was thinking about writing about my experience, it was more just curiosity, and just the fascination of seeing a new world.”

Gutman developed the theme for her novel while working at Cravath. The firm, she said, “is quite an extreme environment, quite demanding …. My experiences there really fueled this novel. I’d always thought it would be great to write a novel, but I didn’t know what it would be about, so that was always an obstacle. This was really the first time that I got a clear notion of what I wanted to write about, and it was this idea – the equivocal death metaphor – that informs the book.”

Gutman did not commit immediately to becoming a novelist, however. After two years at Cravath, she switched to working part-time at Parcher, Hayes & Snyder, a litigation boutique with a strong entertainment practice, while beginning work on the novel. But after nine months, with her savings dwindling, Gutman had a “crisis of confidence” and switched back to full-time legal work.

Then a case she worked on convinced her to pursue the novel with more resolve. In the course of legal work for the estate of Jonathan Larson, the author of the musical “Rent,” Gutman read Larson’s journals from the period before his success, when he was struggling financially.

“I had this sense of having wanted to do something and not [having] finished it,” Gutman said. “That was sort of uncomfortable. Also, having read through so much of Jonathan Larson’s materials and heard various stories about his life, there was just this sense that if you’re going to do something, do it. I told myself, too, the most important thing was simply to do it, not whether I was able to publish it.”

Now, with her first book hot off the press, Gutman has already begun work on a second novel. Based on her experiences, Gutman said she would advise students that “if there’s something you really want to do, [you should] value it, hold on to it.

“If you want to do something, and maybe you can’t do it initially, that doesn’t mean it’s not something you can come back to,” she added. “If you’re at a really demanding job, a large firm, [don’t let] it consume you to the point where you forget there are other parts to your life.

“I think it’s really important – and this isn’t just for law students – [to take] small steps, and not feel that everything has to be done at once,” Gutman said. “For me, the novel was such a lesson in that.”

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