Many a courtroom thriller has been written by a litigation lawyer who opts to test his or her fiction writing chops. For Sidley alum Clifford Garstang, however, the path to creative wordsmith and award-winning novelist wasn’t so linear.
It began with a case of wanderlust. Garstang, whose time as a practitioner with Sidley spanned 1981 through 1994, had developed through his Peace Corps service in Korea a fascination with living overseas.
“That is why I ultimately went to law school and how I got to Sidley,” he recalled. “I had been looking for firms with the potential for an international career.”
Still, Garstang didn’t know exactly how it would all translate into a profession. He had no particular legal discipline in mind as his studies came to a close. “Law students don’t know anything,” he joked about his youthful indecision.
Luckily, Sidley’s office in Chicago had been seeking a fit for its Banking group when Garstang met with the firm’s recruiters. He joined as an associate and enjoyed working with the team, in particular, mentor Bruce Bernstein. “The training in Chicago was first-rate and the people were awesome,” Garstang remembered.
He was also gratified to find that many of his clients had a global reach, which made the work particularly exciting. Garstang later moved to the firm’s Los Angeles and Singapore offices, the latter of which gave him the opportunity to advise multinational banks in Southeast Asia.
Garstang ultimately made partner and then was of counsel at the firm from 1993 to 1994 while he took a leave to earn a Master of Public Administration degree at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He continued on in his profession internationally, working for Harvard Law School in Kazakhstan and then joined the legal department of the World Bank, where he worked on projects in Asia.
“My training at Sidley was really important to my performance at the World Bank,” said Garstang. “I had the confidence to work with lawyers from all over the world. The work, itself, was fascinating,” he added. “I was working with foreign governments as opposed to private clients.”
Those treks around the world inspired Garstang, in particular, Asian landscapes, people and local culture. Those things impressed him so much they sowed the seeds for novel writing. Garstang had found his second calling. He left law in 2001 to earn an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.
Making that career leap in middle life wasn’t easy. “It was scary on a couple levels,” said Garstang. “When you’re a lawyer, you can say, ‘I am a lawyer’ when introducing yourself in social settings. It took me a long time to call myself a writer.”
Nowadays, saying as much shouldn’t be a problem for Garstang, who has published numerous short stories and two books since leaving law behind. His second book, What the Zhang Boys Know, won the 2013 Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction. Set in a fictitious condominium building in Washington, Nanking Mansion, it features a multicultural cast of characters, including an immigrant from Shanghai. Garstang actually began writing the novel, which is infused throughout with Chinese themes, while doing legal work in China. He recently completed a third book, a novel about an American military man who serves in Korea and returns home, to rural Virginia, with a young Korean wife. Drama and a clashing of cultures ensue.
Notwithstanding such literary success, has Garstang ever had second thoughts about leaving legal work behind?
“Practicing law is out of my blood. But if I were to make the move back, I would want to return to Sidley,” he said, adding, “I have been gone now for 20 years but I still consider Sidley, ‘my firm.’”
Published February 2014
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