Not Scott Turow's Last Trial

After 14 books and 40 years in the law, the bestselling author is still going strong

Published in 2021 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine

By Amy White on January 29, 2021


Scott Turow is feeling deliciously unpeopled. 

He and his wife, Adriane, have foregone their Chicago and Florida homes in favor of Kenosha County, Wisconsin, to ride out the pandemic—and, for the perennial New York Times bestseller Turow, to write. 

“We have a country place that has ended up being our principal residence in the days of the virus,” he says. “We’re out here, in a relatively unpeopled area, and my wife has this beautiful, huge garden. It’s a nice world to be in.”

Sounds like just the place to soak up the glowing reviews that have rolled in since his latest novel, The Last Trial, dropped last May. Presciently, a large part of the book’s plot digs into FDA drug-approval requirements and the three-phase clinical trial process.

From The Washington Post: “… No one has illuminated the human side of the legal profession with such precision and care. The Last Trial is Scott Turow at his best and most ambitious.” 

From The New York Times: “… In this meticulously devised courtroom drama, rich with character detail, Turow again demonstrates what he does best: roll out a complex, keenly observed legal case yet save a boatload of surprises for its ending.” 

Not bad for a book by a 71-year-old lawyer starring an 85-year-old one. 

Turow, who’s written 12 novels and two nonfiction books, has come a long way since arriving at Harvard Law School in 1975—although earning his J.D. was only half the story. Turow showed up with a book deal hidden in his proverbial back pocket. The angle? Shed a light on what actually goes down within those hallowed halls during a law student’s first year. One L, Turow’s 1977 debut, did just that.

“I like to joke that I went to Harvard to make new friends, then to write about them,” he says. “I was well aware that I was making these friendships—many of which have lasted my whole life—and that I wasn’t being open about what I was doing. Eventually, I took them into my confidence and explained. And they all were mostly accepting. … One didn’t react very well to the book because he had a view of himself that was different.”

Turow was heading down the path of academia after becoming a Jones Lecturer at Stanford. “But we all get blown through life by the random winds of fortune,” Turow says. “I had the good sense to wonder, ‘Is this really what I want to do?’ And the answer, when I looked myself in the mirror, was no.” 

Much to the chagrin of Stanford’s English department, Turow left for the law, a move he made after realizing the most interesting things to him outside the world of writing and literature were the conversations he had with his lawyer friends. 

“I had no idea what lawyers did,” he says. “But when I began to realize what they did, it was like I had been asking myself the kinds of questions that lawyers ask all my life. It really was a eureka for me.” 

Unlike fellow courtroom artists Lisa Scottoline and John Grisham, and television creator David E. Kelley—yet exactly like his longtime character, 85-year-old Sandy Stern—Turow stuck with the law, even after his 1987 Presumed Innocent ushered in the modern legal fiction genre.

“There were moments when I took the summer away from law to finish Presumed Innocent that I was overcome by fantasies of, ‘Oh, this is great, and it’s going to be a big hit and a movie.’ But I would then think, ‘Well, if all that happens, what about my ambitions to become a federal judge? That’s not going to happen,’” Turow says. “And I would ask, ‘Would I really make that deal?’ Of course. But, to say the very least, I’m content that it’s turned out the way it has.”

While the Dentons lawyer is retired from the commercial practice of law, he remains involved in pro bono work.

“My partners and I are involved with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is involved with nonpartisan election litigation,” he says. “The Lawyers’ Committee for many years has taken the position the Supreme Court has: that every American has a fundamental right to vote. And they have stepped forward in many prior elections to protect that right. So right now we’re working on such matters in North Carolina.”  

That Turow is (kind of) retired and his character, Sandy Stern, is taking his final bow is but a coincidence. “I would be surprised if, this year, I walked into a courtroom for the last time,” he says. 

Stern, the beating heart of The Last Trial, is keen to ruminate on time (“We live in the everlasting present”) while struggling to come to terms with the notion that his is up. His law-partner daughter wants him to hang it up, and Stern begrudgingly agrees, if he can take on just one more client: longtime friend Dr. Kiril Pafko, a Nobel Prize winner in medicine who is charged with insider trading, fraud and murder after patients in clinical trials for his new cancer drug begin mysteriously dying. 

“There was a certain privilege of being able to live again in Stern’s skin,” Turow says. “And his perspectives as an elderly lawyer were in some ways even wiser than my own. I found myself sort of stepping into a more distant perspective on law. Stern maintains his faith in the laws and institutions which I certainly share, although not without a certain amount of shaking my head about what I’ve observed in my own area of the law, which is a hardening of attitudes.”

Stern may be down, but he’s not out—after all, who is going to show Turow’s next protagonist (notably, his first solo lead female protagonist) the ropes? The woman in question, Stern’s granddaughter, Pinky, is a bold, tattooed, loner with a bent for sleuthing who is 40 years younger than Turow. 

“I don’t think of gender as being as big a chasm between me and Pinky as age,” he says. “I can only hope that I understand the world the way she does. Her own strangeness is an abiding fact in her life, and she’s beginning to come to terms with the fact that she’s not like everybody else. That makes her an unusually adept investigator because she’s likely to see what eludes everybody else, but is also dealing with feeling estranged and lonely. It’s mentioned in The Last Trial that she’s bisexual, so that’s among many things that I’ve got to try to get my head around. Right now it’s going pretty well, but there were months when I was more dubious.”

One thing not dubious: Americans’ obsession with the law. 

“It’s unique to this country,” Turow says. “And part of that is because our nationhood was bound up with the existence of legal documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution. France has existed for centuries and it was there long before there was democracy, but the United States did not exist until these legal documents did. The law and the existence of a nation are much more closely aligned.”

That obsession keeps Turow humming along with material, and a message. 

“I’m trying to offer a complex picture of what I regard as a noble institution, and that I think the ideals of the law really dignify our lives,” Turow says. “But the truth, of course, is that because the law is practiced by human beings, the ideals will always end up in collision with the realities of what happens in the courtroom and in the practice in general. It’s not an unswerving journey to the truth. Witnesses lie and lawyers lie and people get blown off course by friendships and rivalries, and it’s important to see all of that.”

Shelf Life

A few of the titles that made Turow a genre-founding father

ONE L (1977)
Much to the chagrin of his classmates, the first entry into Turow’s canon was a (thinly veiled) account of his first year at Harvard Law. Fun fact: One L is actually the first book in which the character Sandy Stern appears—but not the Stern fans know and love. The attorney factors in every novel set in Turow’s fictional Kindle County, but Turow originally inserted him in this very real world, using the name to anonymize a professor. It wasn’t until an astute editor went back, years after publication, that Turow even realized it.

The New York Times called it “spellbinding.” Critics called it a genre-defining modern courtroom drama. And Hollywood called it a hit. Presumed Innocent marks Turow’s introduction to Kindle County and all the folks that inhibit it. In the film version, Harrison Ford plays prosecutor Rusty Sabich, who finds himself in need of a good defense after being accused of murdering the object of his affections, his colleague (and mistress). Enter the clever, urbane Sandy Stern, played by Raul Julia in the movie, which was the eighth-highest grossing film of 1990.

Six books and almost 25 years later, Presumed Innocent gets its follow up after poor Rusty Sabich—now in his 60s and a chief judge of an appellate court—finds himself caught in an extramarital affair and accused of murder, again. This time around, Sabich’s wife is found dead in their bed under mysterious circumstances. Of course, old faithful Sandy Stern gets the call to represent Sabich. Innocent didn’t make the big-screen leap, but TNT did develop it as a TV drama with Bill Pullman as Sabich. 

In the 10th installment of his series, Turow and his Dutch-American prosecutor character, Bill ten Boom, get out of dodge. Boom, a recently divorced white-collar criminal lawyer, hightails it out of Kindle County and straight to The Hague after the International Criminal Court taps him to investigate an alleged massacre of 400 Romani villagers in the aftermath of the Bosnian War. Turow told us he made this departure from Illinois because of how “mystified” Americans seemed to be about how 
the ICC operates.

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