Twisted Path to Instant Success

By Tom Walker, Denver Post Books Editor. Denver Post.

He didn't set out to be a lawyer. That came when he was about 30 and needed to feed his family. He wanted to be a writer.

Baine with 7-foot manta ray copy.jpg

[Baine] Kerr said he grew up in Houston, then went to Stanford, where he majored in English with a focus on creative writing. It was here that he met [Wallace] Stegner, with whom he spent six months in Austria.

"It was a fantastic experience,'' Kerr said. "He was the most inspiring man I've ever known - not only as a mentor, but as a human being. He possessed moral integrity.''

He returned to California and "tried my hand at various writing pursuits,'' including starting a magazine called Place, which he described as a "literary version'' of the Whole Earth Catalog, to which Stegner was a contributing editor.

The magazine lasted for about three or four years, Kerr recalled. After its demise, he attended the University of Denver and received a master of arts degree in the writing program. Realizing that writing wasn't going to pay the bills, Kerr "kind of backed into law school.''

He took the bar exam in 1979 and has been at the Boulder firm Hutchinson, Black and Cook since, doing civil litigation for plaintiffs, mainly medical malpractice work for the past seven years or so. "I found out I really enjoyed the medical research, learning the medicine,'' Kerr said.

Before becoming a lawyer, Kerr was writing short fiction and working on a still-unpublished novel. He has received a fiction fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and is the author of Jumping-Off Place, a collection of short stories.

He said the idea to begin Harmful Intent began after he attended his 25th college reunion in the fall of 1993. "There were a lot of people like myself,'' he said, "people for whom work and career were not wholly fulfilling, which was not what I expected to find there.

"I was surprised to see that there was still this idealism (of the '60s) smoldering beneath the surface. What was missing was making a difference, recapturing the stuff that many of them had breathed a heady air of 25 years before.''

Kerr decided to write about a lawyer "who, while not burned out, was disillusioned and felt a need to recover some of the meaning and the idealism in his life that had fled it.''

Read the entire interview.

Baine Kerr interviewed by Stephen M. Murphy for the book What if Holden Caulfield Went to Law School? 

 Challenges in the Dramatic Narrative

MURPHY:  Harmful Intent is a legal thriller relating to a medical malpractice case involving breast cancer. Did you encounter any difficulties in trying to dramatize a civil case since most legal thrillers involve criminal cases?

KERR:  Yes. I think that is a major challenge. A lot of thought. I don't think I came up with a unique approach to meeting that challenge. Legal thrillers in general are challenging to dramatize because most of the action takes place in rooms: conference rooms, court rooms, etc. And a civil case in particular takes some ingenuity to make things happen in an interesting and visual way.

MURPHY:  What techniques did you use in the novel to explain complicated medicine to the lay reader and still maintain the drama of the story?

KERR: That was another challenge, another potential obstacle to a dramatic narrative in addition to just the lawsuit which is a long, drawn-out, tedious, and boring affair. With both those issues, one technique is to have a client who is very naive in the ways of the court system who constantly needs to have things explained both medically and in terms of what's going on in the litigation. So the lawyer can explain to the client and educate the reader. And similarly in medicine, medical experts can explain medicine to the lawyer. The other way to do it was to set up the protagonist, attorney Peter Moss, as experienced in these kinds of cases. He approaches them in a certain way; therefore going through his strategic thinking allows for exposition of what medical issues are important and how they can be communicated to a jury.

MURPHY:  The case itself, in terms of the failure to diagnose breast cancer, seemed, from my perspective having done some malpractice cases, to be a clear liability case at the outset. Were you concerned in writing the book that you would lose some readers who might think, what's the drama here? What did you do to try to avoid losing those readers?

KERR:  It definitely was a clear liability case. The suspense never depended upon it being a whodunit. It was obvious who did it. The suspense I was hoping to generate was through an examination or a mystery about motive. Why would a doctor, who presumably knows what he's doing, have let this much time elapse? Sort of a whydunit, not a whodunit or a what-happened in terms of motivating the suspense. I wanted the case to be one that would, with the litigation, get better except not as good as the early settlement offer indicated. And that's by Colorado standards, which is a highly tort- reformed state. But I wanted motivation always to be the source of suspense. Why are they offering to settle so early and at fairly high levels? What motivated Bondurant?

The protagonist’s wife Sally is sort of the intuitive side that questions his analysis and tells him he has to take his analysis deeper. You've got to understand this man. You've got to understand his family, she even intuits at one point. So motive is really what that was all about. The case did look like a winner at the outset, but as we know, those who prosecute these cases, your own client is as important as the defendant's culpability. And that's where the case starts going south. With the heroine of the book, Terry Winters, who is a difficult client in every sense of the word. And a flaky client in certain senses, except in the context of what she was facing which is the imminent loss of her life and leaving a daughter behind.

MURPHY:  She's the ultimate difficult client in that she disappears right before the trial.

KERR:  Yeah, and that's not good in the real practice of law.

Read the entire interview.