12:00 AM CST, January 24, 2014
Mary Hutchings Reed had three Ivy League degrees, launched her legal career in 1976 and became a partner in one of Chicago’s best-known law firms, Winston & Strawn. She specialized in marketing, advertising, trademark, publishing, copyrights and entertainment law, and her clients ranged from the American Library Association to boxing promoter Don King. She authored what is considered the leading work on sponsorship law.
But in 1992, on her first-ever sailing trip on the Atlantic Ocean with her husband, Dr. William Reed, she realized something was missing in her life: being a writer.
Reed scaled back her legal practice and began writing in earnest. The 62-year-old Streeterville resident now has 11 novels to her credit and a musical about golf, “Fairways.” She also stepped up her pro bono legal work, notably for Lawyers for the Creative Arts, of which she is on the board of directors. She also is active with The Night Ministry, a homeless agency in Chicago, for which she earmarked 10 percent of the proceeds from her 2013 novel, “Warming Up.” This interview, mostly conducted in Reed’s office at Winston & Strawn, is an edited transcript.
Q: Tell me about sailing that 32-foot boat from Norfolk, Va., to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands in 1992.
A: My husband had sold his medical practice and he came home one day and said he was going to Florida to look at a boat. And I said, “We own a sailboat.” He said this is an ocean-going boat and I said we didn’t live on the ocean and he said, “I’d hate to die without sailing the ocean one day.” He went to Florida and got the boat. He encouraged me to take a sabbatical from Winston & Strawn and I took three months off.
We sailed 22 days and nights and had three terrible storms. It was amazing. We were out there in the middle of nowhere. All the pressures of a law firm like Winston & Strawn didn’t seem to matter very much. So the question raised for me was the issue of what I wanted to do before I died and it was not to bill another hour. I wanted to write. And it was clear to me I couldn’t practice law full-time as a partner and have enough time to even try.
Q: Most people are afraid of asking for a day off, much less three months to sail the Atlantic. How did you approach that?
A: That’s an interesting question. (Laughs.) I just asked. I felt that I was in a place in my career where I had a pretty solid reputation and I guess I had Bill’s example of being able to take time off, like a sabbatical, and come back and do something. It didn’t strike me as any different than maternity leave. Other women had maternity leave. To me it was not that difficult. I was taking October, November and December off and December is often a slow month in the advertising business. I had confidence the partners and associates were more than willing and able to do the work and serve the clients. No one’s that important; the world isn’t going to come to an end. Get over yourself.
Q: You had wanted to be a journalist but became a lawyer. Why did you go to Yale Law School?
A: It was 1972, 1973. The best and the brightest, end of quote, were going to law school. And not a lot of women going to law school. If you wanted to be a journalist, the style then wasn’t to go to journalism school but to learn something else, to get your advanced degree in another topic, which could have been economics for me. Everyone was going to law school and there was some push, I think.
Q: What kind of law did you want to practice?
A: Journalism always appealed to me so the idea of being a media lawyer in a law firm seemed like an acceptable thing. It paid better than journalism. I was single, so I needed to support myself. I would have loved to represent newspapers … but this guy from Sidley & Austin remembered me. We had met during the interviewing season in my first year and third year of law school. He remembered I was interested in media law. Sidley & Austin had a media law group that represented advertising agencies, which was pretty close. … It was very fast-paced, you get to work with creative people, and it is a pretty specialized area of law. There was a lot of appeal to it. And, at the time, there were a lot of women in advertising. So it was a good fit for me.
Q: What is the biggest lesson you learned as a young lawyer?
A: I worked with Quincy White at Sidley & Austin (now called Sidley Austin). He was the head of our marketing group. He valued an economy of words, of writing simple English contracts anyone could understand. That was a skill I learned from him. I worked with Bob Wedgeworth when he was executive director of the American Library Association. He taught me to think through the politics of a problem as well as the practical: What’s really going to happen in real life? Steve Durchslag, I came over to Winston & Strawn with him, I learned that it’s really important to have the trust of your client. You have to be as involved in your client’s problem as they are. You have to treat it like it’s your problem.
Q: What advice do you have for female attorneys today?
A: Well, first of all, I think they are much more savvy, they are aware of how much law is a business. It used to be a profession and is now a business. The bottom line is: Women need to own their success and make sure they are true to themselves in achieving the balance they want between work and the rest of their lives.
The point of “Courting Kathleen Hannigan” (Reed’s first novel) is (that) a lot of the women who joined large law firms in the mid-1970s were up against the glass ceiling. They had to prove women could succeed at the partnership level. Women now have a choice, the glass ceiling is still there in part. But can women succeed? Can women break it? We know they can. Women have more flexibility in designing the career of their choice. They need to be cognizant of that.
Q: Tell me about that first book.
A: “Courting Kathleen Hannigan” is a roman a clef. It’s not (an) autobiography but draws on my experience of being in that first large wave of women lawyers … when women still were not allowed to eat in the main dining room of the Mid-Day Club. When you had to go in the side door at the Union League Club. Women here don’t believe it. Today, can you imagine? That kind of social history is what’s in “Courting Kathleen Hannigan.” Women in any profession at that time have enjoyed reading it because the types are all universal.
Q: How does someone drum up the courage to write that book they always dreamed of writing?
A: You know, you just do it. And for “Courting Kathleen Hannigan” I thought it important to record the social history of women in large Chicago law firms. I discovered something of my own commitment to it. I liked it, I enjoyed it, but it didn’t stir my soul like writing did. It doesn’t take courage to be self-disclosing. The medium of fiction is very freeing. You can tell your story in combination with other stories so it becomes truth.
Q: Your books have been self-published.
A: “Independently published” is the preferred.
Q: Is that OK? How do you feel about that?
A: Certainly, when I started this whole process I anticipated a major publisher would pick me up like that. I made my decision about the time the publishing industry was heading into disarray. It would be first choice, of course, to have that third-party validation of a major publisher.
But there’s a significant body of quality, independently published fiction. “Self-published” does have this negative connotation (of) “Anybody can but most of them shouldn’t.” But indie publishing is like indie music. We don’t have the same aversion to it. The real issue is: How do you separate the wheat from the chaff? How do you find your audience and how do you define success? Right now, for me, this independent publishing venture has been far more satisfying than I ever thought. You do get to know the readers individually. I have readers who are people I don’t know. That’s satisfying. People tell you what they think.
You don’t make money. My leaving the full-time practice of law was a stupid economic decision — one should question whether they should take back my economics degree — but it wasn’t an economic decision. It was a soul-making decision. Absolutely soul-making. I would be a nutcase today if I didn’t give myself the chance to do this. I get incredible satisfaction from it.
Q: Do you use any of the writing tips you learned as a lawyer in writing fiction?
A: Yes and no. I’m told I have a pretty clear, direct prose style. But you need to unlearn journalism. I just wrote an article about this because I write this column for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. In journalism you try to tell people as quickly and efficiently as possible. In dramatic narrative writing, you’re trying to hide the ball as long as possible. Every sentence is a tease to get you to the next sentence to get you to the next sentence to get you to turn the page. That’s hard, to just kind of reverse the dramatic flow.
Q: How do you find your stories?
A: They are often just inspired by a character that intrigues me.
Let’s take “Warming Up,” for an example. My sister had a friend in college, quite a few years ago now, who was supposedly very talented and trained in opera. I never heard this woman sing as much as “Happy Birthday.” She would not perform in public. She stuck around in my head as a character for quite some time. This whole idea of being so talented and not using it. Then you know there are all these contests and venues for people to get up — or self-publish, even — and put it out there. … (They) don’t have that same talent but (they) have all the guts. There’s always the tension between having the talent but not the guts or the guts but not the talent. That’s what I started out writing about. Just exploring, just thinking. “What’s it like?” “What do you do?”
Q: Are you surprised where you find yourself in writing?
A: Yes, every day. That’s one of the fun things about it.
Q: How do you feel about revealing yourself in the characters?
A: You have to get over it. You have to write characters who do things you’d never do and think things you’d never think. With “Courting Kathleen Hannigan” I know people are dying to know what’s true and what’s not true. I tell them it’s all true and it’s all fiction. It happened to somebody sometime somewhere I’m sure. The truth is probably not nearly as interesting as fiction. It’s kind of boring. But fiction, because it can draw on all the truth of all the characters, is fascinating, I think. It can tell the truth in a better way.
Q: What do you tell people who want to be writers?
A: I encourage people to do a page a day and do it first thing in the morning. This is how I tell myself, “This is my first priority, and then I can go to the office.”
There’s the discipline of doing it every day. At the end of the year, you’ll have 365 pages and an agent who will say it should be 300 pages. It’s so simple. This is not something I’ve made up, but I’m living proof it works because people think I’m so prolific.
Q: Talk about Lawyers for the Creative Arts.
A: We represent new not-for-profit arts organizations and artists of all kinds. Through them, I’ve organized several independent publishing seminars for artists.
Q: How does representing these creative clients differ from your previous legal work?
A: Representing new or struggling artists is satisfying because any artist who really wants to make a living at it (needs) the business expertise and savvy a seasoned lawyer can offer them.
Q: Your schedule seems full. Why work with The Night Ministry to fight homelessness?
A: How could I not? Walk around Chicago when it’s minus 15. Imagine how dangerous it is to be living on the streets. Maybe it’s because home is important to me. I tend to over-glamorize the freedom of living day to day and not (worrying). I tend to over-glamorize the freedom from responsibility that home implies. It’s anything but glamorous on the streets.
Q: What do you do to relax?
A: Writing, to me, is very relaxing. I can be lost for hours in that. I garden. I golf. I cook, entertain. I sometimes sort closets. I sail — love to sail. That’s the ultimate meditation. It just clears the mind. Sailing is just being, getting away from all that achievement stuff, all that doing stuff. You’re just there.
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