Breaking into Journalism


On Monday, February 12th, the Law and the Arts Initiative sponsored its third event, “Journalism for Lawyers: How to Launch a Writing Career.” Five successful journalists and Harvard Law graduates came to share their career paths and their takes – some optimistic, some less so – on prospects for new journalists in their rapidly changing field.

Assistant Director of Academic Affairs Amy Gutman, herself a published novelist, introduced the Law and the Arts Initiative, a year-old program that has so far sponsored the Creative Writers’ Group and panels on starting a writing career in law school and careers in book publishing. Gutman announced that the initiative would be partnering with the Berkman Center to start a blog focusing on student writing about their summer work experiences. She also introduced moderator Elaine McCardle, who most students know as HLS’s Publications Director, but who also “ditched the law,” as McCardle put it, very soon after graduating law school to become a journalist.

The first panelist to speak was Ruth Marcus ’84, currently a columnist for the Washington Post. Marcus was a journalist before she came to law school, explaining that while she wrote for the National Law Journal, “my basic understanding of law was, ‘Okay, so there are federal courts, and state courts, right?”” At HLS, she wrote a few pieces for the Post and even managed to ruffle the feathers of former Dean Vorenberg, getting into a discussion with him about “whether you could really be off the record at an event with 300 people there.”

Marcus explained that most people she interviewed in Washington did not expect a reporter to have a law degree, leading to some entertaining anecdotes about the “most obnoxious things I ever did with my Harvard Law degree,” involving Marcus dropping the “H-bomb” when confronted by particularly condescending interview subjects.

Marcus worked at two large law firms after her 2L year, but quickly realized it was not for her, and that she preferred the creativity and independence of the newsroom. On a visit to the Post newsroom during that summer, she passed the desk of one of the editors, which had a stuffed monkey suspended over it on a bouncing cord. “I bet those law firms don’t have any stuffed monkeys,” said one of the Post staffers to her.

“And she was right,” Marcus told the crowd. “Then I knew I had to go back.”

Finally, Marcus encouraged aspiring journalists to look for opportunities to do writing that was not academic legal work, including editorials and writing on the Internet.

Next to speak was Adam Cohen ’87, former president of the Harvard Law Review. Cohen’s journalism career began at the Harvard Crimson, where he was on staff for three years. After law school, he also eschewed the firm world, working as a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center before joining the staff of TIME. He now works for the New York Times, where he is a columnist and Associate Editor of the editorial page.

Cohen spoke of loving both journalism and the law, and how he had not left the latter for good: “Unlike most legal journalists, I really do like the practice of law and think there’s a lot you can do with it. And I may go back to it.”

Cohen also emphasized the unplanned nature of his career, which led to him taking jobs he wouldn’t have expected, like writing about technology even though he didn’t know much about it. One particularly interesting interview, of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, led to him writing a book, The Perfect Store: Inside Ebay. Cohen encouraged the crowd to “be flexible, try lots of things.”

The next panelist, Murad Kalam ’02, was making his second appearance on a Law and the Arts panel after speaking at “How to Launch a Writing Career in Law School” last spring. Kalam’s novel, Night Journey, was published to critical acclaim last year, and he has since written non-fiction pieces for magazines and contributed commentary to NPR. Kalam explained that he owed part of his early success to contacts he made at HLS, especially One L author Scott Turow, who gave a favorable quote to his book, and journalist Debra Dickerson, who recommended him for journalism jobs.

Kalam also admitted he first came to journalism as a way to promote his novel, but has since gotten a lot more out of it. He traveled to Egypt to do some non-fiction writing that was published in Granta and the New York Times Magazine, and is now setting his second novel in that country. Kalam had some of his first novel written when he graduated from Harvard College, but chose law school because he “wanted something more practical than an MFA.” He worked briefly at a large law firm before taking a leave that he “never came back from.”

Kalam encouraged the audience to “do it all” – to start writing while they are in school or a job, and not see the writing life as something they save up money for and then do full-time on some faraway date.

Representing the blogosphere encroaching on the readership of many of the other panelists was John Hinderaker ’74, the co-founder and writer of Powerline, one of the most-visited conservative blogs on the Internet. Hinderaker was the only panelist still actively practicing law; he is a partner at Minnesota’s Faegre & Benson LLP.

Hinderaker told the story of how he was writing commentary for print outlets before he and Scott Johnson set up the blog as an experiment; Johnson liked the idea, but said, “The idea that anyone would read what we write is a pathetic fantasy.” Powerline now gets 60,000 readers a week, and is credited with breaking the “Rathergate” story in 2004 that exposed documents critical of President Bush’s National Guard service as forgeries.

Hinderaker spoke of the reasons so many lawyers aspire to be writers. “Lots of lawyers have blogs or unfinished screenplays in a drawer,” he said. “Why? First, because many of them don’t find law to be fulfilling. But it’s also because these are people who analyze well, who write succinctly and fast.” Hinderaker praised the ability of blogs to get ideas to people cheaply and fast, but cautioned against using them as a salary source: “There’s potential, but not many sites have enough traffic to support you full-time through advertising.”

Finally, Paul M. Barrett ’84, former Wall Street Journal columnist and book author, took the microphone. Barrett spoke of wanting to go into prosecution, but being worried during a summer internship when it seemed many of the AUSAs he worked with were heading off to private practice, which he did not want to do. “I panicked,” he said. “I thought that was all that there was, and I quit law school and worked as a journalist for a while.” Barrett however, decided to come back to HLS, and found that his career “sorted itself out.” He is now on a book tour for his current work, American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion.

Barrett offered some words of caution for aspiring journalists, mentioning how the field is contracting in the age of alternative media. He advised students to only try the field as a career if “you feel you must go into journalism,” pointing out that the panellists had somewhat atypical careers because they had experienced so much success.

During the question-and-answer period, debate ensued about how much of a “Pollyanna” or a “grinch” to be about career prospects in journalism. All the panellists, however, encouraged the audience to be flexible and try new things in their future work, and not get locked into thinking there was only one acceptable career path.

“The two things about Harvard Law,” said Kalam, “are that we become risk-averse and we think things should be easy to get and laid out for us. Whatever you do, do it because you love it.”


Ideas For Breaking Into Print

The panelists at “Journalism for Lawyers” agreed that aspiring journalists can’t get a staff job without proof that they can write – and having a small portfolio of published “clippings” is the best way to show that. Some ideas for getting started:

Write an op-ed for your local
newspaper on a subject you know and care about.

Start or contribute to a blog that publishes well-written pieces on politics or culture (A MySpace blog about how your life sucks is fine, but will not help you break into journalism.)

Submit personal essays to magazines and newspapers that have special features open to the public, like the New York Times’ “Modern Love,” Newsweek’s “My Turn,” NPR’s “This I Believe,” or more local features.

You knew it was coming: Write an article or editorial for The Record. No cruel rejection slips involved. World-class copyediting.

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