As Tressler LLP celebrates its 35th anniversary, we are proud to connect with our many impressive alumni to see where they are today. Judith Fournie Helms was a founding partner of Tressler in 1986. She retired after an illustrious 33 years of practicing law, and instead of having a typical, quiet retirement, she launched her second career as an author. In the following special interview, we caught up with Judith to learn more about her journey and latest novel, Grudge Tiger.
What inspired you to write Grudge Tiger?
I was ready to write my second novel and hoped to get it published by a traditional publisher. I thought back over my thirty-three years of practice to identify situations from interesting cases that might have appeal to a general audience. Of course, the tiger-bite case stood out, but there was a particular aspect that I found intriguing.
Sometime after I’d retired, I came across an excellent non-fiction book about “revenge tigers.” It corroborated my understanding that the tiger personality which tends toward retribution is a real thing, an idea worth exploring in a novel.
In the case I’d worked on, Tressler attorney Pat Maloney and I were defending a circus. While I was interviewing the tiger trainer, he referred to Tony as a “grudge tiger,” who attacked in response to having been kicked by the plaintiff some days before. I prepared a motion for summary judgment as to the Animal Control Act count based on the defense of provocation, relying on the trainer’s affidavit. We didn’t have the opportunity to present the “grudge tiger” defense to the jury because plaintiff’s attorney withdrew that count and proceeded on negligence only.
In my novel, the defendant is a family-owned zoo rather than a circus, the trial proceeds only under the Animal Control Act count rather than negligence, and the story takes place in southern Illinois rather than Chicago. I molded the narrative so that the only issue for consideration by the jury was whether plaintiff’s act of kicking at the tiger two weeks before the tiger attacked him was legal provocation. Would the fictional defense attorney’s client, a widowed zoo-owner with two daughters, prevail or lose everything?
Click Here to View Grudge Tiger on Amazon
When did you start at Tressler? What was your area of practice?
In 1978, I started practicing at a law firm that did primarily insurance defense litigation. In 1986, a group of us from there decided to form our own firm, Tressler, Soderstrom, Maloney and Priess (later shortened to Tressler LLP). I worked with the practice group headed by Pat Maloney. Dan Formeller was Pat’s first associate, and I was his second.
The new law firm worked to develop a book of more sophisticated work, including corporate, commercial, and contract litigation. My focus went from insurance defense litigation and trial work (including the defense of high-risk insureds such as circuses, amusement parks/carnies, truck companies, and nursing homes) to environmental coverage litigation (a national practice) and, finally, intellectual property coverage litigation (also a national practice).
Do you miss practicing law?
I loved practicing law. The people with whom I worked were my closest friends. Doing legal analysis and crafting winning defense strategies were always challenging and exciting to me, and I enjoyed it until my last day of work. I think I might miss it if I weren’t using the law and lawyers in my novels. Grudge Tiger is a courtroom drama. Statures of No Limitations (under contract with TouchPoint Press) is about three women lawyers (a dwarf, a morbidly obese woman, and a “Barbie) who, weary of dealing with “bodyism,” start their own law firm in Lake County, Illinois. The description of their law firm as an “enchanted place” comes directly from how I felt about my experience at Tressler.
The novel I’m working on now, Where the Blue Ridge Mountains Meet the Andes, was inspired by a tragic auto accident case I worked on. In my novel, the surviving woman lawyer’s loss of three loved ones brings to light a shocking revelation about her past and the astounding lengths her parents went to in order to keep it hidden from her. She and two friends travel to the Altiplano in Bolivia in search of the truth.
What is your favorite book?
Maybe it’s surprising, but it’s not a novel. It’s a serious study of addiction by Dr. Gabor Mate entitled In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (North American Books, 2010). Dr. Mate’s analysis of the most common causes of addiction has stayed with me, as have his case studies. It’s a powerful non-fiction work that has changed lives.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write a book?
If you’ve never written fiction, or haven’t written for many years, a good way to get into it is by starting with short stories. I wrote and published a number of short stories before I attempted my first novel, The Toronto Embryo, a story for pro-choice and pro-life young women. One piece of short fiction I wrote several years ago also provided the germ of the idea for the novel I’m working on now.
Click Here to View The Toronto Embryo on Amazon
It seems there are two basic approaches to novel-writing: plotting out the entire story before beginning to write, and starting with a general idea of the plot and letting the characters develop it for you. My husband, Larry, a retired trial lawyer who has written three novels, and I both do the latter. It’s always interesting to me that the characters tell me what they are willing to do, and what they won’t even consider.
The most important thing is simply to start writing. Like with anything else, your work will improve with practice. Finally, if you can find the time, I recommend joining a writers’ group. Hearing critiques as your novel progresses is invaluable, as is seeing what other writers are doing. The writing community can be just the support you need to keep you going. I’m always learning something new about the process, and I’m happy to share what I know.
About Judith Fournie Helms
Judith Fournie Helms grew up in southern Illinois and attended college and law school in Chicago. She became a founding partner of Tressler LLP, and has been recognized by her peers as a “Super Lawyer,” and a “Leading Lawyer.” Retired from the practice of law, Judith writes novels and short stories at her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where she lives with her husband. She is also the author of the 2018 novel The Toronto Embryo. Please visit her website, www.judithhelms.com, for more information and a list of suggested book group questions.