Like Midas, Everything Sheldon Siegel Touches Turns to Gold

In addition to coming out on top in court, Siegel tops the best-seller lists

Published in 2004 Northern California Super Lawyers — September 2004

I’m determined to find Sheldon Siegel’s dark side.

That’s because Siegel has just promised to name a character after me in his next murder mystery/legal thriller, in exchange for my writing a positive piece about him for this magazine. So while I’m extremely interested in being immortalized in one of his books, I have my journalistic integrity on the line.

This promise came about after I jokingly suggested this trade in a phone message I left at his house, and surprisingly, he agreed. It turns out that he’s named several characters after people he knows: co-workers at the law firm where he works, parents of kids on the Little League team he manages and even strangers who bid on it at charity fund-raising auctions. It seems Siegel doles out names of his characters as readily as he sprinkles his whodunits with red herrings.

Also, he was already pretty confident that my profile on him wouldn’t be a “hit piece” since we already knew each other. We first met about five years ago when I was giving a talk at the California Writers’ Club. Siegel, then still an aspiring novelist, came up to me afterwards and told me how much he enjoyed my columns in the local paper. The next time I saw him, four years later, our positions were reversed: he was speaking to the same club, now the author of three best-selling novels, Special Circumstances, Incriminating Evidence and Criminal Intent, and I was in the audience, listening to him.

He was explaining to the other writers how he had come to write his popular series of legal thrillers, with an Irish ex-priest ex-public defender turned detective named Mike Daley as the protagonist. He’d wanted to be a novelist since he was a teen, but law school, a family (he has a wife and twin boys) and a career in corporate securities law had pushed that dream into the background. Then, in 1993, an ex-client walked into Siegel’s law firm at 101 California Street and opened fire, killing eight people and wounding six others. And although the gunman never reached his floor, it was a transformational experience for him and the law firm. The firm closed its doors two years later, with many of the members, including Siegel, moving to another firm a couple of blocks away. For Siegel personally, it helped him realize that he couldn’t keep putting off his dreams to a “someday” that might never arrive.

As compelling as this story was, what struck me as he was narrating it that day to the writers’ club, is that even though the books had brought him widespread acclaim and a small fortune, it was clear that he was still the same, nice guy who’d flattered me a few short years before.

These days, Siegel fairly screams “uncontroversial”: in his mid-40s and with his thinning gray hair and black-rimmed glasses, he looks like he could be Woody Allen’s younger brother. He’s easy-going. He still works part-time at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP, his law office, even though he doesn’t need to financially, because he “likes it” and enjoys working with some of the same people he’s worked with since 1986. He commutes to work riding a ferry from his home in Marin, across the San Francisco Bay into the city. He goes to the office wearing a fleece jacket and polo shirt. His office is on the 17th floor and has a glorious view of the Bay Bridge and the ferry building clock tower. The office is decorated with photos of his twin boys, Stephen and Alan, 12, and his wife, Linda, who was his college sweetheart. Copies of his novels, in seven different languages including Japanese and Hebrew, share shelf space with mega-thick binders of contracts Siegel has put together for deals that have “hundreds of millions” at stake. Along the back wall literally sits sports paraphernalia — a seat from the old Comiskey Park in Chicago, where Siegel grew up.

Since I have told myself that I won’t accept being a character in one of his books — the suspect? The mystery witness? The killer? — unless I can dig up some dirt on Siegel, I’m starting to get glum. His co-workers seem to like him. None of them seem jealous. And he still seems genuinely surprised, delighted and bemused by his success.

Siegel was approaching 40 years of age when the gunman opened fire on his office. This had a contradictory effect on Siegel’s literary aspirations. “I had this story in my head for years about a killing at a big law firm,” he said. “But after the murders, I felt odd about writing it. But later, it made me realize that if I’m ever going to do it, I’d better do it now.”

Like Scott Turow, who wrote his first novel traveling to and from work on the train, Siegel banged his out on the Larkspur Commuter Ferry, in 45-minute snippets. Sometimes he’d be in the middle of a big scene, typing feverishly, when the boat docked.

“The cleaning guy would tell me I had to get off the ferry.”

It took him almost three years to write the first book. Part of the problem was that he kept switching narrators.

“At first I told the story from the point of view of the Jewish defendant,” Siegel says. “But then I got to a certain point and realized that every scene was constrained by the narrator being behind bars.”

The breakthrough came when he lobbed the narrator’s voice onto what had been a secondary character, Mike Daley, the defense attorney.

“Suddenly we could be anywhere the action was,” Siegel smiles. “It also left open the possibility of a series.” Siegel, who swears he fully expected two to three years of solid rejections, was already thinking “sequel.”

The next step was giving Daley someone to talk to, so he made Daley’s partner his ex-wife, because “it hadn’t been done.” Siegel tells me she became Hispanic because at the time he was working on a case with a female Hispanic attorney and “I liked her name and her voice.”

I’m starting to wonder if there is anyone who isn’t a character in one of his books.

Siegel, who had never tried a case in court, no less a criminal case, eventually showed some chapters to his lawyer and judge friends, who gave him encouragement and advice and sometimes told him that his courtroom procedures were all askew, or that such-and-such could never happen. Not only did this not deter Sheldon, he expected it.

“I only know four ‘objections,’” he tells me. “ ‘Mergers and acquisitions’ is about as far from criminal law as you can find. My books don’t turn on esoteric legal points. My goal is to tell a good story where the legal stuff is right.”

Still, he made the changes. “Fortunately, there wasn’t anything catastrophic I couldn’t fix.”

Siegel sent the book to exactly one agent, contacted through a mutual friend, who looked at the book all of one day before calling him to say she wanted to represent it. The agent sent it off to New York, and within two weeks, six major publishers were bidding on it.

“The day it all came down, I was in my office, waiting to close a big, big deal — in the hundreds of millions,” Siegel says, “and my agent keeps phoning saying, ‘They want a two-book deal’ and how fast can I write the next one …”

And that was that. No long years of suffering, no multiple blows to the writing ego by way of rejection letters. That initial book became a best-seller, and the rest is history.

We leave his office and head down to Harrington’s, a nearby waterfront pub, the kind of wood-paneled beer-and-burger joint that draws an overflow lunchtime crowd full of white-collar workers attracted to its faux working-class décor. Sheldon tells me that this place, too, is a character in his books — a place where deals are brokered and confidences are betrayed.

If the new author was surprised at being published, he was astounded at some of the press. “I got reviews that said my courtroom scenes are so authentic. And I have no idea how I do that.” He almost proudly confesses that his criminal law “training” consists of reading other legal thrillers and watching TV shows like The Practice and Law & Order.

If he’s not quite sure how he does what he does, Siegel is aware of not doing certain things.

“I never do a big scene on jury selection,” he tells me. “They’re too repetitive and boring. I don’t do flashbacks or prologues or openers, because they break up the narrative voice I’ve established.”

Now that he only works at the law offices part-time, Siegel no longer writes on the ferry. When he’s ready to begin a new novel, he makes a two- or three-page handwritten outline. Then he plots out the first 50 pages and starts writing. When he finishes those pages, he plots out the next 50, and so on.

He finds the “middle 300 pages” the hardest (his books can run over 400 pages) but says he really picks up steam after he reaches the halfway point and can see the ending.

Lately, Siegel, who said he went into corporate law because he found it intellectually challenging and never considered criminal law because “I didn’t have the stomach for litigation,” has ventured into teaching wannabe thriller writers the ropes. He’s chairing a Fiction Writing for Lawyers seminar, as well as a Mystery Writers Symposium in Marin, which, only six years ago, he enrolled in as a student.

We’re riding back on the ferry and somehow the topic of my being a character in his next novel comes up again. Partly because I’ve failed so miserably to get the “goods” on him, I suggest that my character could be a columnist who “has” something on Mike Daley and uses it to manipulate the detective. To my surprise, Siegel’s eyes light up. “That has real possibilities,” he says, and before I know it, we’re spinning plot lines. “You could even be a recurring character!” he tells me, as the ferry docks and we say goodbye.

I haven’t found Sheldon Siegel’s dark side, but unfortunately, he’s found mine. I rationalize that I can still allow myself to be in his book because my fictional counterpart will get the dirt on his fictional counterpart.

Sure he will.

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