Lawyers make case for literary pursuits - LancasterOnline: Books

Lawyers make case for literary pursuits

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Posted: Saturday, November 21, 2009 11:55 pm | Updated: 1:28 pm, Wed Sep 11, 2013.

In courtrooms, witnesses swear to tell the truth. Outside them, their lawyers create fiction.

The list includes John Grisham, Scott Turow, Lisa Scottoline, Lancaster's own Neil Albert, and now Mitchell Sommers. The local bankruptcy attorney has a short story in the new anthology "The Best of Philadelphia Stories: Volume 2."

"Bando" tells of a middle-aged loan officer whose own home is in foreclosure. The short story is more revealing than any economist's analysis of the bursting housing bubble.

"I was trying to follow the ancient writer's maxim: Write what you know," Sommers explained.

"This is as much a story about middle-aged men as it is about the recession," the 51-year-old Manheim Township resident added. "What does society tell you? That everything is on your shoulders."

Sommers' protagonist knows the house he and his wife bought was too big, too expensive; that the mortgage interest rate would rise; that his wife's return to school and switch to a lower-paying job was financially fatal. All along he's been denying the facts and reassuring her.

Now the worst has occurred, and discovering a squatter in their vacant house unleashes his emotions.

"In some way, fiction can make things more real than their cold, nonfiction counterparts," Sommers said. And it can do so "without breaching client confidence, without potentially embarrassing" clients, he added.

• Sommers has been "dabbling in fiction" since high school, though he says law school crushed a lot of his creative impulses.

While practicing law, he's freelanced nonfiction, writing columns for the Central Penn Business Journal, the Lancaster New Era and other newspapers.

In 2000, he began attending workshops at the former Rabbit Hill Writers Studio in Lititz; soon after he enrolled in a low-residency program at the University of New Orleans, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing.

Sommers' flash fiction piece, "Subprime," excised from an early draft of "Bando," was accepted for online publication by Big Toe Review. He also written a play, "Eruv," which the Lancaster Dramatists' Platform will give a staged reading next month.

He's been shopping around his thesis novel, whose protagonist is a "really screwed-up, barely recovering alcoholic lawyer."

But don't worry, readers teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Sommers isn't about to quit his day job. Unless, that is, "someone wants to hand me a big enough advance," he said.

Even then, "I don't think Scott Turow ever quit the practice of law," Sommers said. "If you're going to write about lawyers, the only way to keep it honest is to stay connected."

Besides, "I think I'm a better lawyer because I don't spend all my time just writing legal stuff."

• Fellow Lancaster Bar member Neil Albert might agree.

He published six novels about a disbarred attorney turned private investigator, starting with "The January Corpse" in 1991 and pausing after "Tangled June" in 1997.

By then, "I felt I had said what I needed to say," said Albert, who never stopped practicing law. His books, published by Signet, Walker & Co. and Onyx, garnered some favorable reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist and Library Journal.

Albert says he's still writing (he's currently a hundred pages into a memoir-turned-novel), "but it's not the kind of thing you can pick up and put down in a few minutes."

A changing and ever busier practice in personal injury and municipal law, plus an intense interest in horseback riding, leave him with less time for writing now. Back when he was doing criminal work, he'd clear a week for trial and then find a plea bargain left him with a block of time for writing, he recalled.

With his bankruptcy specialty, Sommers probably won't see his own legal work waning anytime soon.

• All the material in the "The Best of Philadelphia Stories: Volume 2" first appeared in the free literary magazine Philadelphia Stories or on its Web site,

Readers will notice Sommers' story is set in Lancaster County; these "Philadelphia" stories are culled from eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, Sommers said.

The paperback, published by PS Books, a division of Philadelphia Stories, is priced at $13.95 and is available at bookstores and on the Web site

Jo-Ann Greene is books editor of the Sunday News. Her e-mail address is

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