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Author finds former legal career to be the write stuff

Seelie Kay (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Seelie Kay (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Seelie Kay views her writing as a way to humanize attorneys.

“Everyone has this view of attorneys that isn’t very accurate,” said Kay, a nom de plume for a writer with more than 30 years of experience as an attorney and public-relations professional. “People have a very unreal sense of a lawyer’s life.”

Kay, who always enjoyed writing, initially sought a career in public relations, but an industry internship changed her mind. She decided the law would be another way to put her writing interests to use.

Following law school, she worked as a clerk before embarking on a varied legal career that took her from the American Bar Association, where she was a speechwriter, to an editor’s position at a legal publication in Virginia. Eventually, she settled in at a Milwaukee law firm specializing in labor, corporate law and First Amendment cases.

The next career change didn’t come until Kay had gone through a divorce. Working long hours and being a single mom, she decided to leave her firm and concentrate solely on writing. Initially, Kay ghostwrote books for other attorneys and for publications before delving into fiction. Her current e-book, “Kinky Briefs,” is a collection of 10 short stories looking at love, lawyers and the sometimes questionable behavior that some people working at law firms engage in.

Kay said the stories in the book were not drawn from anyone she knows. Rather, she took her own experiences and let her imagination go wild.

“My legal career definitely inspired my writing,” Kay said. “My stories are fiction, with a large dose of reality. The practice of law can be rather boring for those in the cheap seats. For every dramatic trial and golden-tongued orator, there are hundreds toiling behind closed doors, researching the law, conducting depositions, writing legal briefs and arguing with other lowly lawyers on the phone. Only a few sharks actually rule the pond. The rest are chum, fighting to survive.”

About four years after leaving her legal practice, Kay was diagnosed with MS. While the disease initially slowed her writing, she kept going and eventually found her groove.

“Writing is a huge stress reliever for me,” Kay said. “I use not only the writing skills I developed and nurtured as an attorney, but also the research skills. I always have a second computer screen open when I write so I can look information up.”

Wisconsin Law Journal: What makes your work important to you?
Seelie Kay: I not only I love what I do, I am grateful that I have the ability to do it. Whether writing non-fiction or fiction, I am able to draw on the skills developed as a journalist and a lawyer, and that is emotionally and intellectually satisfying. However, after being diagnosed with MS and undergoing six major surgeries in five years, I never thought I would get to work again, much less return to writing. I was in a literal anesthesia fog, and at times it was difficult to hold a coherent thought. One day, my mind cleared, and I began writing furiously. That’s how “Kinky Briefs” was born. I have not stopped writing since. I have another book coming out this summer, and two more are in the final draft stage. I got a second chance at life and I am not going to waste it.

WLJ: Who is your hero in the legal field?
Kay: Because of the positions I have held, I have had the opportunity to meet the ‘best of the best’ — everyone from Melvin Belli to a number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. There are two lawyers who hold my unconditional respect. The first is Judge Robert O. Snyder, a Missouri State Appeals Court judge I clerked for. His elegance with the written word and his unrelenting belief in justice and the rule of law left a lasting impression. The second was former American Bar Association president John C. Shepherd, who brought me to ABA as his speechwriter. He believed that law was a profession, not a business, and as such was required to adhere to the highest standards of professionalism. He was a ‘lawyer’s lawyer’ and a true gentleman.

WLJ: What do you do outside of work to deal with stress from the office?
Kay: When I start having difficulty sleeping, I livestream opera from the Met. While I enjoy all forms of music — a metal band practices in my basement on a weekly basis — opera is what reaches into my heart and soothes my soul. I also love to cook and have been known to bake enough cookies to feed an army when I need to take a break from work.

WLJ: What’s one thing many people get wrong about what you do?
Kay: That writing is not work. I put in more hours now than I have in any other job, including law practice. People tend to be totally oblivious to the amount of work that goes into getting a book to market. There are many hours of research, writing and editing, followed by the soul-crushing process of finding an agent and a publisher. However, the work doesn’t end there. These days, the author must be heavily involved in book promotion, and that requires a significant commitment of time and energy. While getting a book published is incredibly satisfying, it does not come without an incredible amount of work.

WLJ: What’s your favorite memory from law school?
Kay: When I entered law school, my class was one-third women. Back in the 1980s that was a big deal. No former class had ever been composed of so many women. The law professors and some of the male students made it difficult for us. There were taunts and there were insults. So we had something to prove, and we did not disappoint.

WLJ: Is there a certain case that stands out to you?
Kay: As a law student, I clerked for a criminal-defense attorney, and one of the first appellate briefs I drafted was for a death penalty case. It was a particularly gruesome set of facts and the defendant was clearly guilty. I remember asking the attorney why he would take such a case. He said something like, ‘The practice of law is not about judging your client. It is about ensuring they have access to justice no matter their alleged crime.’ That’s something I try to remember every time someone is put on trial for a particularly heinous crime.

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