Interview with Lan Cao

Professor Cao is the Betty Hutton Williams Professor of International Economic Law. She joined the Fowler School of Law in 2013 after serving for more than a decade on the faculty at William & Mary Law School, where she was the Boyd Fellow and Professor of Law. She clerked for Judge Constance Baker Motley of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. She practised with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison in New York City. Professor Cao was a Ford Foundation Scholar in 1991. She has published scholarly articles in the area of international trade and finance, international economic development, finance and culture in law. She is a strong education professional skilled in International Law, Policy Analysis, Research, International Trade and Public Speaking. She is also the author and co-author of several books and supplements, including the novel Monkey Bridge (Penguin 1997), about the Vietnam War and its impact on a young Vietnamese American girl. Professor Cao holds the Betty Hutton Williams Endowed Professorship in International Law.

Q. Could you please tell us a little about yourself and your life at law school? 

I went to Yale Law School, clerked for a federal judge in New York, and then worked as a lawyer in a Wall Street law firm, doing litigation and corporate work. By chance, I applied for a tenure-track job to teach law and surprisingly, got the job, knowing nothing about the application process, teaching, or scholarship. I’ve been teaching since 1995 and received tenure in 2001. I’ve taught at Brooklyn Law School, Duke Law School, William & Mary Law School, Michigan Law School, and now Chapman University Law School.

Q. We know you still practice as a Professor of Law while balancing a side passion for being an author and a novelist. How have you been keeping a balance between the two? What challenges did you encounter in the same and how did you overcome them?

I like to write. Legal scholarship is a different kind of writing than fiction. The former is based on research and is meticulous and methodical. From the research, one deciphers one’s thesis, supports it, addresses arguments that go against the thesis, and then reinforce the thesis. There is very much a step-by-step process that is comforting (because it feels like one is following a recipe). Of course, sometimes the thesis can’t be supported and one has to abandon the project. That’s possible too. But legal scholarship very much takes place within an established form. One writes after one has read and done a lot of research. By contrast, fiction, or at least the kind I’m drawn to, is very much a dreamlike process. There is no established form. It’s more freewheeling, unruly, uncontained. My fiction doesn’t require research. Some events might involve research but the entire project is very much something that flows wherever it might flow. Therefore, both kinds of writing satisfy me in very different ways. I write law articles first as it’s part of my job. When I do fiction, it is usually “after hours.” I think there is a lot of time actually, and I have never felt like there is not enough time to do both. Fiction is often less smooth for me; I can be blocked and feel I’m stuck. When I’m faced with that challenge, I usually go to a museum and look at paintings which are inspiring for me. Or I listen to music. I rarely read fiction when I’m writing fiction myself.

Q. How was the clerkship under a stalwart like Constance Baker Motley. What was your experience like?

The judge was an icon in the civil rights movement. She argued ten cases involving racial desegregation and other civil rights issues before the US Supreme Court and won 9 of them. She represented James Meredith who singlehandedly desegregated U of Mississippi. I was in awe of her. I don’t think many immigrants are aware of how our lives have benefitted from the struggles won by African Americans during the civil rights movement. As a judge, she was demanding but also very caring. I learned a lot from her. We were lucky, my co-clerk and I, to have clerked during a time when there was a full-blown trial in her chambers, so we got to watch the trial, research issues for her, and write jury instructions. Many times, clerks only get to see motions, not trials, because cases are often settled before trial. Our trial was a RICO trial (racketeer influenced and corrupt organization act) involving the government trying various defendants charged with being part of a criminal enterprise. There were murder charges, conspiracy, gambling, etc. It was all quite exciting for us.

Q. You have written novels like The Lotus and The Storm and Monkey Bridge. What made you turn towards the writing field? In hindsight, would you consider your legal expertise to be an asset to you as an author? 

Legal writing is very different. There is a point to be made. If it’s a research paper, the point is the thesis where one has to support one’s point but also survey opposing points and come up with the thesis in a fair and neutral way. In a brief, which is of course also part of legal writing, there is a point to be made as well, in service of the client and the point has to be well made to create a win for the client. In fiction, one avoids making “points.” I’m drawn to parts of life that are filled with crevices and fractures. Things that are in the grey space of life, that are ambivalent and ambiguous. So one can’t be didactic in literary fiction. So my legal writing wouldn’t be an asset per se in literary fiction. However, the discipline of being a lawyer does help in other areas, such as writing. I turn to fiction because I am a child of war and I wanted to explore the violence, the loss, the trauma that come out of war and I found that the best way for me to do it is via fiction.

Q. Have you always wanted to be an author or an academician since your law school days? Have you considered being a full-time writer?

No. I never thought about anything methodically. I usually stumble onto it and then it sort of just happens. I never thought or planned to be a law professor, nor to be a writer of fiction either.

Q. Many of our readers are either students in law school or just starting out after their graduation. Many of them are hesitant to take their career purely out of passion. Do you have any tips on how they can strive on working consistently towards their goals in/after law school?

It’s good to balance passion with pure pragmatism. Pick an area that you’re passionate about. Keep it in mind, but also be aware you might not be able to get there immediately. Keep an open mind. I didn’t know I want to write. But then I tried it and they liked it. So one’s passion might change as well. Once you fall into your passion, take practical steps towards it. I decided to write fiction while working full time at a Wall Street law firm. I didn’t have any real stretch of time to write. But I wrote on the subway in NYC. The subway train is often stuck because of traffic or congestion and one is inside the train for much longer than one thinks. I had a writing pad and used that time to write. That’s a practical approach. I didn’t wait to take a year “off” from a law firm and go to a camp to write, as an example. Start small. Use every chance to start. And don’t wait only when you have the “best” time to pursue your goal. The best time is now, in everyday life, not when you take a break from your everyday life.

Find out more about Lan Cao – 

· LinkedIn:

· Website: ;

Disclaimer – All views and opinions expressed in this interview are personal and belong solely to the interviewee(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the LAABh Foundation or the individuals and institutions associated with LAABh Foundation.

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