In this episode of Lessons I Learned in Law Scott Brown speaks to Abigail Dean. Abigail is legal counsel at Google as well as author of Sunday Times and New York Times best-selling novel Girl A, which was published in January 2021.
Abigail has always loved reading and writing and discusses how her law career has helped shape her career as a successful author. She also shares three lessons she learned in law including:
Abigail’s choice for Room 101 is the legal profession’s tendency to aggrandize certain members of staff; something she finds very unhelpful.
Presented by Scott Brown of Heriot Brown Legal Recruitment.
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Scott Brown (00:00):
Hi, and welcome to Lessons I Learned in Law with me, Scott Brown, founder of Heriot Brown In-house Legal Recruitment. I love the conversations that I get to have on a daily basis with people from across the legal profession a nd I get a real insight into their experience and their drivers behind their careers. As a recovering law myself, I think that a lot of these insights I could have done with them a little bit earlier in my career. And this was the real inspiration behind Lessons I Learned in Law.
My guest today is Abigail Dean who leads a bit of a double life. She is debut author of the Sunday times and New York times global best-selling crime thriller ‘Girl A’ which was also subject of a bidding frenzy for TV rights that were snapped up by Sony. More interesting than that s he's also an in-house lawyer at at Google, where she works on ads and ads policy around their work. So welcome Abigail.
Abigail Dean (01:09):
Cheers, Scott. It's great to be here. Thanks for the intro as well.
Scott Brown (01:14):
Thanks for, thanks for joining us. I hopefully got it all down.
We'll also get to hear more around Abi's career as a writer and her interest in that, and then other stuff that she does outside of work to, to relax. But we'll kick off Abby with lesson one, if you don't mind.
Abigail Dean (02:09):
Yeah. So my, my first lesson, I think that I've learned from Laura is just that the pure impact of words. And I think kind of the idea that the choice of, of words and, you know, the choice to punctuation as well, the choice of sort of everything that you might put into a contract - there will be great scrutiny on that. And I, I kind of wanted to talk about this when I think a bit, because it's something that, for me, I, I feel like I've taken into writing as well. I think that, that it's something that, that both law and writing share, I guess.
Scott Brown (02:51):
Yeah - great synergy between the two. Law being I guess, very much an eye for detail. Is that something, is that something you have naturally in, in your writing before your legal career, or is it more trained into you from, from, from your, from your legal background?
Abigail Dean (03:16):
Trained in, I think, and certainly something that I know is that I remember as a trainee lawyer, that was always something I needed to work on. And probably as with kinda as with all trainee lawyers, you know, you kinda want to work on attention to detail - the famous phrase. I think where certainly something I, I learned kind of as a trainee and kind of at, in my work at law firms was, was the, you know, there, there's no use having excess words that, that sound nice for whatever reason, cause essentially everything on the page is simply something else to be, become scrutinized by the, the party that you're negotiating with of ultimately in the worst case scenario to be scrutinized by a judge or by a tribunal. So I think for, for me, I used to be somebody who wrote creatively with quite a lot of sort of purple prose and, you know, there'd be kind of ad verbs and adjectives all over the place. And I think that it was being a lawyer, that helped me kind of refine that in writing too. So the, the idea that actually, you can say things with very few, with very few words, possibly much more powerfully in a concise manner, as opposed to as opposed to, you know, the, those adverbs and adjectives I used to obsess over.
Scott Brown (04:42):
Yeah. Got you. How do you balance that creativity versus the precision or the creative aspect that goes into being a, a writer balanced with the, that detail, do you find they compete against one another at any time?
Abigail Dean (05:09):
I don't think so. I tend to think they compliment each other - admittingly in a, I think a lot of people would say, oh, you know, in the law, there's lots of opportunities to be creative. And I think that that is true sometimes. I, I don't think it's true in the same way. The, I think there's other opportunities for creative solutions in, in law. And actually interestingly often that is potential ambiguity. I've found that, you know, there are actually such situations where if you can't necessarily reach agreement, you know, you, you can have an extreme situation parties almost would agree to something ambiguous in the hope that doesn't come up. That's kind of the extreme, the, the extreme sort of drafting consequence. So I feel like in a way that , maybe there's sort of something to do with trying to get rid of ambiguities in my writing more at times than in, than in law.
Abigail Dean (06:06):
So, yeah, I, I think that the, the creativity in law sort of comes in with, with how do we solve problems. Whereas the, and writing really does come through in the actual prose itself. And, you know, you, you do want to sentence to, to be something that sticks with people or that kind of, you know, defines a character. For example, you have so much freedom to create a sort of little world of your own. Whereas I guess obviously with law, your contracts are existing in a very specific world that that is the real world or the world of, you know, oil and gas or technology. There's, there's a bit less freedom to make the world's up yourself. And I do, I do like doing that.
Scott Brown (06:50):
Writing a novel like Girl A with not set end versus a contract where it's execution and then it's done, or you've got a purpose of that contract. How do you balance the two of those, like writing - how do you know when to put it down when you're writing your novel?
Abigail Dean (07:48):
I haven't thought of that before, but I like the, I like the idea of it in sort of, I guess there's two, there's almost two ways that that works because, I suppose the dream for every contract writer, is that someone puts it in a draw and never reads it again, that the relationship between the parties worked so well, that you never really have to refer to the contract. Whereas I suppose, with a novel, you want it to have life after it's finished, you want readers to return to it and you want those characters to kinda linger in a way. So there's sort of an interesting juxtaposition there. In terms of actually when you feel the novel writing process is finished, I think I'm probably quite pragmatic about it in terms of certainly with girl and the, the, my second novel that I'm kind of close to finishing the edits on.
Abigail Dean (08:41):
Now. I, I think you are just so relieved to never have to read it again. You're probably just as soon as you get to a point where you kinda think this is, I put all my all into this and actually am very happy to lay it to rest. It, I think it's actually really liberating to pass it over to the readers. So, you could obviously write and refine and edit forever, but I think there's quite a lot of pragmatism that goes into writing a novel and possibly more than people initially think. And actually there's, something can kind of great about realizing that it's probably as good as it's as you are ever gonna make it. And that’s it. It’s done. It belongs to the readers then, and that's really nice.
Scott Brown (09:26):
Yeah. That's yeah. Nice way of looking at it.
Talk us through Girl A for people that haven't for people picked it up yet Abi, and how that came around.
Abigail Dean (09:41):
Sure. So Girl A is my debut novel. It tells the story of a woman – Girl A - who is Lex of the title and who escapes from her parents cult and frees her six brothers and sisters when she's 15 years old. And it, it, the novel finds her many years later working as a lawyer in New York doing everything she can to avoid her family until she’s sort of summoned back to the UK on her mother's death. And she has to decide, what to do with the house that she and her siblings have inherited, which is the house where they, where they were brought up.
It was kind of came about when I left - well sort of tied into to the fact that I left private practice in 2018.
Abigail Dean (10:48):
And I was pretty determined that when I left, I wanted some time out. I had been working at Mill B ank. It was kind of intense working environment. And it, I think for me, it was just time to sort of spend some months doing something that I had neglected really in my twenties, because I did spend most of my time being a lawyer in my twenties. And yeah, I, I, I took the summer off. My deal with myself was, you know, take summer off - three months, an absolute privilege to be able to do that. But, you need to be doing something every day and, and it was sort of writing that I did. Yeah. And loved doing. And that was where I started drafting Girl A.
Scott Brown (11:37):
Amazing. And did you have, at that point in time, was the role with Google? Was that lined up? Was that in the bag?
Abigail Dean (11:48):
It was, I'm a very risk averse lawyer. Yeah. So I, I love bank and sort of decided to become a writer, but no, I actually I was sort of pretty careful in terms of wanting something, you know, something to, to go to in at the end of the summer. And also I think, you know, wanting some certainty around paying the bills as well. I think writing is such a, it's a very precarious profession. You have no idea if novel will be picked up. I it's, it's very, very kind of challenging and uncertain. So I, I kind of probably needed that, that kind of, that, that, that knowledge from a very kind of dull perspective, - I wanted to know that I be able to pay the mortgage too.
Scott Brown (12:36):
Makes sense. Makes sense. I'm sure starting something like that, you don't the success that it leads on to be from the outset. So makes a lot of sense. And at what age did you start writing and was it at that point that you seriously revisited it?
Abigail Dean (13:11):
Yeah, it had been something that I had done since I was a very little kid. And if you'd have asked me when I was sort of five or six - it's funny, I'm actually my parents' house now and I'm in the room that as a very little kid, I would write in before school sort, in this sort of study that there used to be obviously massive, huge, like computer just where I'm looking. And that was kind of where I would write on for half an hour before I even went to school. I was very diligent. I was impressed with my own, my own tenacity there!. So, so yeah, it was, it was what I always kinda dreamt of. And I, I definitely did stop doing it. I think when I went to university - first I think just because there was a lot of other, there was a lot of other stuff to do, you know, there was a lot of socializing to do, and there was a lot of work to do as well.
Abigail Dean (14:06):
But, but also I think I didn't have particular confidence that anything would ever come of my writing and law is a pretty all-consuming profession. So it was something I kinda neglected, I think for a lot of my twenties, certainly. I think I was also much more precious about writing at that time and I sort of felt that I needed huge swathes of time and, you know, I needed to kind of sit in a silent room and, and wait for the, the inspiration to hit me. And obviously that led to me not writing for a decade. So, so ultimately pragmatism comes back to you in terms of, you can't really wait for like the muse to arrive because you probably won't. So I think that was something that you might grappled with. Yeah.
Scott Brown (14:57):
Nice. I find it so interesting speaking to artistic and creative people like yourself, because I guess it needs work like anything, right. You need to be, you need to be doing it as well as and practicing the skill or, or going back to it and giving it the time that it needs by, by the sounds of things. What encouraged you at that, at that point to, to revisit it? Was there anyone that inspired you to, to do that?
Abigail Dean (15:33):
I do remember very vividly that my partner said to me- I would often talk about wanting to be a writer you know, like was my dream job was, would be to be a writer and he we'd been together for 10 years or so at that time. And he'd obviously was just tired of hearing, tired of hearing about this. And, and he's also a, he he's a lawyer as well and possibly much more kinda practical down to earth than I probably am. And he did just say, ‘well, you know, Abi, if you want to be a writer, you actually do have to write something’ which is quite savage!
Scott Brown (16:16):
Abigail Dean (16:16):
It's very cutting, but it is also, you know, it's, it's possibly some of the best advice that I've ever received. And I, I, I think also to, to be kind of Frank at that point, I wasn't particularly happy in private practice anymore. And, I had a kind of awful state of, of hours. And, you know, I think the people closest to you kind of see that as well. And I think his attitude was ‘If this is something that you love, why not kind of give it a, give it a go and see what happens’.
Scott Brown (16:50):
Yeah - throw yourself in. A splash of cold water about the face, it sounds like. Or a slap a slap around your face to to give you, give you a talking to!
We’ll move on to Lesson Two, if you don’t mind Abi?
Abigail Dean (17:10):
Yeah. I, I think this kind of ties in quite closely in a way with, with what we were kind of just talking about. So I, I think I'd say it was sort of persistence and tied in with that tolerance for boredom, which is possibly a slightly depressing lesson to go to. But I, I don't mean it to be, to be that I, I think it's that idea I mentioned about in writing, you know, waiting for the muse to strike you, you know, only writing when you really want to write. You just won't do it. And, and I think I, I do remember clearly one of my supervisors saying to me about law, that there will always be some of your job - and I think personally, I think this applies to every job that is boring or, or that is that you don't particularly enjoy.
Abigail Dean (18:01):
And actually all you can do is work on the ratio. You know, you want to make as much of it as interesting as possible. But you will also to do that, have to win your some elements that actually aren't particularly interesting. That's definitely the case with writing. That's something that people don't necessarily, think, I think people often think, as a writer it's dream job, you just sit there and the words just start flowing. There's so much editing and so much refining. And you know, there'll also be parts of writing a hundred thousand word novel that aren't particularly fun and that are pretty grueling. So I think that's something that, that persistence and tolerance for boredom has been something that I've actually found very valuable. Yes, it's not meant to be a depressing lesson at all.
Scott Brown (18:53):
A good lesson if it's depressing or otherwise it's something that people should keep in mind.
What are the, what are the most exciting, exciting parts of the writing process for you?
Abigail Dean (19:09):
So I think the most exciting part, and I think it's quite interesting, cause I, I think it's possibly similar for some elements of law as well is actually the, the, the, the time when you're thinking, I think about a new idea. And this might apply equally, you know, when, when you're sort of thinking about how to structure a deal or how to structure arguments in a case, because in a way it's, it's where you get to do this sort of big thinking. You get to just sort of, you know, really be very, very creative and everything, you know, that you're coming up with sounds like it's gonna be wonderful and it's gonna really work. And obviously the hard bit is then when you put pen to paper and you try to draft that commercial arrangement, or you try to sort of present those arguments in a really kind of convincing manner. Of course, then everything becomes stagnant and terrible.
Abigail Dean (20:02):
It it's very much the case with writing that, you know, your book is probably never better than when then before you start writing it because it's easy. You know, it, it is just a sort of series of great ideas. As soon as you start trying to kinda capture them, they're hard and you, you have to wrestle with them and it's never gonna be this dream that you have in your head. Yeah, it's a fact of sort of writing and think effective life just generally with most great ideas that actually, you know, in their execution, they become a bit more muddied and, and difficult to deliver it.
Scott Brown (20:44):
That's good. Fair. See the process of writing- I've been watching, I dunno if you've seen it on Disney+ the, Get Back the Beatles documentary, have you seen it?
Abigail Dean (21:01):
I haven't. No,
Scott Brown (21:04):
Awesome. Watching them, like, just come up with a song and writing it on the spot and then go back and revisit it. Like you're like you're talking about. I just thought, oh, they'll an artist. Must just sit down and just write a song like straight out or something comes out. I dunno, it feels like a lot more of a amalgamation of over time it takes shape. And a novel is, I guess, more obviously like that, but how much going back and forth and revisiting things is there from, from your side in that creative process,
Abigail Dean (21:44):
A huge amount. So I think for Girl A, there was something like 12 or 13 drafts when you kind of put into consideration from the very first draft, which will be something that, you know, I've, I've almost not read back myself, you know. It's literally sort of like the rough, the rough draft to, and then you have input from yeah, the US, you have input from the, the UK team. And it, it really is a case that I think with every edit there is less to do. But yeah, that you start off with generally a big structural edit that deals with kind of characters that deals with pace and, you know, the events of the novel, are they happening at the right time? Like, should we just get rid of a quarter of it because it's actually really not that interesting. And then you kind of go to to more of a sort of like, you know, specific sections, you know, could we make this a bit more fast paced?
Abigail Dean (22:42):
Like, could we still make this a bit punchier and then it sort of the, the focus narrows to kind of lines and then to words, but yeah, it's the, the novel always looks very, very different from, well, a- from what it looked like in your head, as I sort of said at the beginning. Yeah. Cause it never looks that good ever. But then also just from the first draft year, it does get then start getting progressively better and it's pretty satisfying. You know, if you were to run a red line, it would be pretty heavy what I say.
Scott Brown (23:12):
Yeah, yeah. Fair enough. Yeah. We're all familiar with those, but yeah, I can't imagine, I can't imagine what that would look like.
Has writing, I guess it's now a part of your career. Is it a hobby? Is it something you've done to relax? What else do you do outside of balancing these two careers to, to relax?
Abigail Dean (23:47):
I do a lot of running so lots of sort of running and and I, I'm sort of relatively keen gym-goer. Everyone obviously wants to sit next to you at party if you're both a lawyer and a keen gym goer. Yeah, I I also, I, I read a lot I think that's sort of something that I've, you know, that I always try to make time for. Cause I think it helps so much with, with writing. And, and just also just, I say that for the love of it too. Yeah, there's pretty much nothing better than lying in bed on, on a Sunday morning, you know, reading, reading a book which given I have a four month old does not happen, anymore.
Scott Brown (24:31):
Yeah, I was gonna, I was gonna ask that actually.
Abigail Dean (24:39):
Yeah, the days when that did it was fantastic. I think the other thing I say is I, I always loved traveling. And obviously that's something that has been pretty scuppered by the last, last few years, but it's hopefully something that can start up again. Yeah,
Scott Brown (24:57):
Yeah, yeah. So you're on mat, you're on mat leave at the moment?
Abigail Dean (25:03):
I am, yeah. Yeah. So I've got another, se ven, eight months of mat leave.
Scott Brown (25:09):
Nice. And plans to travel during that?
Abigail Dean (25:15):
Yeah. We're going to Portugal next week. So we have the most bizarre passport photograph of, of our son that I've ever, that I've ever seen. He looks sort of absolutely furious that he's being taken on holiday in this photo. So so no, we'll see how that trip goes and then we'll decide what happens after I think.
Scott Brown (25:40):
It's even better when they're - our eldest is four and she's still that same passport, just the same passport photo. Like how on earth are you, how do you, how could you even like make an assessment? Same kid, it’s nuts. 10 years. I think it lasts for 10 years. It’s mental!
we'll move on to, to lesson lesson three.
Abigail Dean (28:03):
The last lesson is just that I think that So this isn't really a lesson that ties into writing very much. More just a lesson that ties into life. You know, I, I sort of look back at various meetings and, you know, deals that I've been confronted with over the years. And so often I thought I just don’t know how I'm gonna do this. I think that was particularly the case that working as a junior at a US firm. So I remember sort of, you know, being told, you know, ‘ you go flying out alone, to Singapore to negotiate a significant deal and just thinking, I, I, I can't do that. That's a, that's ridiculous. And, you know, you always do get through those things and, and yeah, certainly I know that as a very shy kind of teenager, the idea of even speaking in a room full of people would've been petrifying. So then the idea of speaking in a room full of people for many sort, kinda, you were challenging you for, for, for many days in a row. Yeah. You know, I think it's, it's great for, for sort of giving you a bit of self belief and confidence that way.
Scott Brown (29:29):
Yeah. Like you said, a really good life lesson, as well as as within law - pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, which obviously you've done.
I'm interested to ask as well, like less lessons I learned in law, but what lessons would you say you've learned in writing that have maybe pollinated into or helped you in your legal career?
Abigail Dean (30:02):
I think that the, determination and and practicality one definitely is something. It sounds like something, you know, you may be more likely to learn in a law and carry into writing, but I think that kind of practical tenacity of just being like, you know, you've just gotta kind of get, get on with stuff I think is really helpful, especially for an in-house role where you are expected to kind of make decisions and, you know, especially a thing of very kind of fast moving companu. The decisions that you, you can't necessarily ruminate on for, for months at a time. I think that that's been kind of helpful sort of to, to have the confidence to make those decisions. And yeah, like the decision of ‘is the novel done or not’.
Scott Brown (31:00):
Abigail Dean (31:01):
Is the policy done or not? They're not dissimilar.
Scott Brown (31:05):
Yeah. Cool. And then I've been asking everyone - on series 3 anyway - what they would put into Room 101. Something or someone from your legal career what would you, what would you consign to, to room 101 Abi?
Abigail Dean (31:43):
I'd have to be careful with ‘someone’? I think one, one thing that I, that I definitely would throw into Room 101 would be, I, I think that in some, certainly to some degree, there's often a bit of kind of sort of aggrandizing of particular people in, in, in firms. And that's something that I found very liberating going in-house in terms of, you know, actually that there's much less of a hierarch certainly in my role now. And I would say, I think that, you know, any kind of I think sort of any kind idolize of any individual is always quite, quite dangerous. And I think it, yeah, I think in law, suppose that does take place. I think that that should never get in the way of people being sort of decent to one another. And yeah, so I think I'd say that somebody's holding those particular individuals at law firms out can, can be a bit of a dangerous thing at at times.
Scott Brown (32:50):
Yeah. Right. Well yeah, happy to throw that in there!
Do you feel you're more looked at as a human with an in house versus how you were in private practice?
Abigail Dean (33:08):
I, I guess, I dunno if I'd say sort of more as a human cause I think generally my experiences at law firms have always been really kind of positive. I've never sort of felt, I guess, dehumanized in a way - that would be, that'd be too strong a way of, of saying it. I, I guess I do feel like there's a, there's been a real sort of, I think there's a real effort in, in house sort of, I think people who manage quite like managing. It's something they've sort of deliberately pursued, whereas I think obviously in law firms, you know, you can be a brilliant, brilliant lawyer. You can make a lot of money. It doesn't necessarily mean that you are a fantastic manager of people. And I think that's something that I actually don't think it's that individuals should be necessarily be responsible for. It's something that the firms themselves should be responsible for and they should consider that. Because I think there's ways that that can be addressed pretty easily. But you know, in my experience, and in friends experiences, it's not necessarily the case.
Scott Brown (34:18):
That's a good, good way of putting it. What's next for you, Abby? The new, you mentioned the, the second novel, when's that set for release?
Abigail Dean (34:34):
So that's set for release next year - early next year. And that's a novel about conspiracy theories. It's been a very interesting novel to write in the last, in the last sort of 18 months. Sometimes a bit too close to home.
Scott Brown (34:49):
Abigail Dean (34:50):
But yeah, since that will be, yeah,
Scott Brown (34:54):
That sounds good. That sounds right up my street. Excellent. Well look forward to following that and its release and but yeah, it's been a, a pleasure catching up and and, and speaking with you, thank you so much for your time in your busy schedule of new mom and balancing everything.
Abigail Dean (35:18):
Cheer Scott. No, it's been, it's been great to come on and yeah, thanks so much for having me
Scott Brown (35:24):
Well, I hope you enjoyed the latest episode of Lessons I Learned in Law with me Scott Brown and Abigail Dean, who is a legal counsel at Google, but is also got a little side project, a little side hustle. She has a New York times bestseller and Sunday times bestseller Girl A.
Fantastic to hear how Abi draws from her legal experience in, in her writing and how they compliment one another. It's really inspirational. So if you're sat there discontented or unfulfilled in your, in your job as a solicitor or a legal counsel, then know that you're more than just a lawyer and that you can achieve, you can achieve great things both in your career as a lawyer and and elsewhere.
If you liked that episode, please check out our other guests. If you head over to heriotbrown.com/lessonsIlearnedinlaw there's a link to all of the episodes that we've had so far. Please rate and subscribe the podcast wherever you choose to listen to that. And if you have any suggestions of guests that you would like to hear from, and you'd like to hear my conversations with - we would really those suggestions. That's where the suggestion of speaking with Abby from thank you. Thank you, Keith. You know who you are. But until next time, thanks. I'm Scott Brown. Thanks for listening.