New York, April 8, 2016—Novelist Brad Meltzer ’96 paid tribute to the professors, classmates, and fundamental lessons he learned when he was a student at the Law School during a humorous and insightful talk titled “Copy Write: The Author Survival Guide.” On March 24, Meltzer delivered the 29th annual Horace S. Manges Lecture, sponsored by Columbia Law School's Kernochan Center for Law, Media, and the Arts.
Novelist Brad Meltzer ’96 speaks about how his Columbia Law School experience has influenced his writing career.
A writer of legal thrillers, mysteries, and children’s books—and host of a TV series—Meltzer prefaced his remarks by mentioning his distinguished predecessors in the Manges Lecture series, including judges, professors, and even the director of the United States Copyright Office. “The last regular person who gave this lecture was the European Union copyright chief,” he said. “In fact, the last time I spoke at Columbia was the 100th anniversary
of my beloved Columbia Law Review
, where I shared the stage with [Securities and Exchange Commission Chair and former U.S. Attorney] Mary Jo White
’74 and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
’59. So I first need to say thank you for so clearly lowering your standards to accept me here.”
Inspiration Strikes in Class
“Everyone gets their start somewhere,” said Meltzer, “and I can trace my career back to this school, to this exact building.”
As a student sitting in the last row of a classroom in Jerome Greene Hall, Meltzer listened to a discussion with alumni in the entertainment business, including renowned literary agent Morton Janklow
’53, New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye ’64, and lawyer Freddie Gershon ’64. Gershon's story stayed with him. “No offense to Mort Janklow, no offense to Bob Shaye, but suddenly this was the most interesting guy in the room.”
Early in his career, Gershon had represented the Beatles’ original drummer, Pete Best, in a lawsuit against the Beatles. He subsequently became counsel to show-business impresario Robert Stigwood and the COO of the Stigwood Group, which produced concerts, recordings, and films. “‘Then,’ he said, ‘I met a guy named John Travolta and I did a movie named Saturday Night Fever, then I did a movie called Grease. And then,’ he said, ‘it didn’t matter what I did,’” Meltzer recalled.
“What I was struck by was, how? How did he do that?” asked Meltzer. “Obviously it had to be more than just dumb luck.” Meltzer wanted a creative and accomplished life. “My mission in this lecture is to show you how to make a career out of the profession that’s at the core of arts and copyright: Author. And, again, it all started here for me.”
Getting into Columbia Law
Before law school, Meltzer had spent a year in Boston, where he moved fresh with a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan. He came east on the promise of a job that then fell through. “I moved all my stuff, and I thought, ‘oh my god, I’ve wrecked my life,’” he said, “so I did what all of us would do when we think we’ve wrecked our lives—I said, ‘I’m going to write a novel.’”
While he wrote that novel, he applied to Columbia Law School, where his girlfriend and now- wife, Cori Flam Meltzer
’95, was enrolled. “I got called in for an interview with the dean of admissions, James Milligan
, probably because I was with Cori,” Meltzer said. He told everyone he blew the interview. “I only spoke about movies and art and film and writing—I didn’t say anything about the law,” he said.
His friend Andrea Cohen ’95 thought he shouldn’t worry. “I’ll never forget her words: ‘When it comes to Columbia Law, they don’t want everyone to be a judge or a professor or a partner at a law firm. They need some people who will do things differently. That’s what makes the school great.’ And by some miracle, they actually let me in. In that moment I learned the one lesson that was the most vital—there are rules, and there’s the law, but then there’s reality.”
Looking for Free Legal Advice
“So what’s the first thing I did when I came to Columbia?” Meltzer asked. “I looked for free legal advice.”
|Professor Jane Ginsburg, Kernochan Center faculty director, introduces Brad Meltzer and explains the history of the Manges Lecture.|
He sought out one of the Law School’s top experts, Professor Jane Ginsburg, now the Morton L. Janklow Professor of Literary and Artistic Property Law, and asked about obtaining copyright protection for the novel he wrote in Boston: “It was like asking the head of the Treasury Department for help with your 1099.” She gave Meltzer a more practical lesson in how to sell a book. First, she said, he needed to send out copies of his manuscript in order to find an agent. She referred him to Janklow, who turned him down but offered the names of other agents. Meltzer had no money to make more copies of his 500-page manuscript, but then the dean of students, Marcia Sells ’84, made the copies for him. He found an agent, though that first book would never find a publisher.
“The week I got my 24th rejection letter, I started a book that became my first published novel, The Tenth Justice
. I was sitting in my torts class with David Leebron
. I was daydreaming, and I wrote down the words ‘Supreme Court,’ and I wrote down the word ‘clerk,’ and I wrote down ‘book idea,’ and I circled it.”
Writing his First Legal Thriller
The Tenth Justice concerns a law clerk at the Supreme Court who faces ruin after he gets tricked into revealing a ruling before its release to the public.
“Everything I needed to know was right here at Columbia Law School,” said Meltzer. “In fact, as I look back on it, everything I needed in my entire career I learned in that first year: contracts, torts, civil procedure, property, constitutional law, criminal law, and what they used to call research and writing.”
He still had to write the book, and he planned to write it in a 1-credit independent study program. “I had to find someone on staff willing to work with me,” Meltzer said. “I looked at the directory of all the classes, and I found this professor, Kellis Parker
, who taught a class called Jazz and the Law. I was like, this was my guy.” He worked hard for that single credit. After reading Meltzer’s manuscript, Parker wrote a simple critique: “Keep going, baby.”
“God bless Professor Kellis Parker. My book sold—all it takes is one person to say yes.”
As he finished the book, Meltzer drew from other sources at the Law School, including Henry Monaghan
, the Harlan Fiske Stone Professor of Constitutional Law, whose lectures provided fodder for The Tenth Justice
’s chief justice.
Meltzer got another practical lesson when his editor left the publishing company. The company still had to honor Meltzer’s contract, but it seemed likely that it would bury the book with no support to sell it. He signed on with another publisher. “It didn't matter that I had a contract,” he said, “because there's the law and then there's reality.”
|Students enjoy Meltzer's humorous anecdotes||peppered throughout his March 24 talk.|
Making a deal in Hollywood
The reality was “ruthless” in Hollywood, Meltzer said, after a movie studio bought the rights to The Tenth Justice. Lawyers often represented multiple parties in a deal. “Who was watching out for my interests? I still have no idea. In LA, what gets looked at is not the client but the deal. It's a rough lesson, but you better believe it's reality,” Meltzer said. “There were moments when the Law School helped me get my sweet revenge.”
The book’s villain used his early knowledge of the high court’s ruling to make a killing on Wall Street, but the studio president decided that was unrealistic. “Hollywood was saying my book was not realistic,” Meltzer said with a shake of his head. “This is a city where people think Superman can punch Batman and Batman will live.” Meltzer called on his corporations professor, Harvey J. Goldschmid
’65, who happened to be the general counsel (and later a commissioner) at the S.E.C. “He actually wrote a letter on SEC stationery that was like, dear super-boring Hollywood guy, you’re totally wrong—Brad's book could happen. Professor Goldschmid sent me the letter, may he rest in peace. As I learned again and again, there's the law, and then there's the real application of it.”
The human side of the law
Meltzer told a handful of other stories in which human intervention and mediation affected the course of enforcing the law. That, too, was a lesson he learned at Columbia Law School.
“Yes, the intellectual information in classes is vital. But its application, its nuances, its understanding, it always comes through the human filter, and it always will,” said Meltzer.
“At the start of this lecture, I told you that I wanted to answer one question: How? How do you build a career in this world of art and the law, in this world of copyright and intellectual property? As an answer I mentioned to you that everything I needed in my career as a writer I learned in this school.
“I still believe that, but as I was putting this talk together, as I went back over each story I told you, I realized that I left out the greatest thing that this school gave me—its people. Dean James Milligan, Dean Marcia Sells, Professor Jane Ginsburg, Professor Kellis Parker, Professor Henry Monaghan, Professor Harvey Goldschmid, Paul Brennan
’96, Dave Light ’95. Every problem I had, nearly every question I faced, I found the answer from someone at Columbia.”
|Brad Meltzer '96, with Professor Jane Ginsburg, said he appreciated the pointers she gave him on how to sell a book when he was a student at Columbia Law School.|
Professor Ginsburg, the faculty director of the Kernochan Center, introduced Meltzer’s lecture. She said the Law School’s Horace S. Manges Lecture & Conference Fund
was established in 1986 by the firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. The late Horace S. Manges
’19 was an illustrious trial lawyer and counsel to the American Book Publishers Council (now the Association of American Publishers). A founder of the Copyright Society of the USA, Manges represented major publishing companies and authors, and he played an important role in the development of copyright legislation.