Eight years ago, Lisa Joy studied for the California bar exam while finishing her first screenplay. After months of work, the Harvard Law graduate “happily” passed, but then said, Nahhh, tossed aside plans for the corporate consulting world and dove headlong into the movie business.
Today, the 39-year-old screenwriter is the co-creator of the HBO series Westworld, which wrapped up last Sunday [minor spoiler alert] with quite a violent end. On Monday, it received a Golden Globe nomination for best television drama series.
Joy’s ascension in the entertainment industry caught our attention after my colleague Josh Block (a fellow Westworld fan) listened to an episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and heard Joy say she still maintains her bar membership in California (just in case). Outside of her work writing and producing Westworld, Joy has also been a screenwriter for the television show Pushing Daisies and co-produced Burn Notice. She is married to Jonathan Nolan, who wrote Memento (2000), co-wrote The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) before directing and co-writing Westworld with Joy. Nolan and Joy met at the premier of Memento and he ended up buying Joy her first screenwriting software before she went off to attend Harvard Law School.
I contacted Joy and her publicist set aside time for a 20-minute interview. [Wall Street lawyers who bill their clients more than $1,000 an hour generally spend 30 minutes to an hour with Big Law Business].
It turned out that Joy’s experiences have been molded by a prestigious legal education. She attended Harvard, studied bankruptcy law with Elizabeth Warren, interned with Nina Totenberg at NPR, and then spent a summer with Latham & Watkins, where she assisted lawyers in efforts to overturn a murder conviction.
She also interned with the District Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, where she had a front row seat to domestic violence cases — from child abuse to murder — which she said informed her world view.
“You see the full spectrum of humanity in criminal law and to me, it’s both uplifting and devastating at the same time,” said Joy. “I think you also see that there can be people who are trapped in lives that are hell who you have no idea about. And there is real pain in the world sometimes. And some of that stuff, it didn’t leave me.”
Asked why she keeps her bar membership active, Joy didn’t rule out the possibility of returning to a career in the law or contributing to a case if she finds one she’s passionate about.
“Being a lawyer, it’s like holding a key card to a parallel dimension of rule sets in the world,” said Joy, “and it’s lovely to make sure that key continues to work and to continue to brush up on the law every so often.”
Below is an edited transcript of our full discussion.
Big Law Business: So tell us, how did you go from being a lawyer to a Hollywood screenwriter?
Joy: Sure. I grew up in New Jersey and I went to undergrad here in California at Stanford. Afterward, I went and consulted for a while at a company called McKinsey. After that, I went in-house and did business strategy stuff for Universal Studios. So, I really had a circuitous path. After that, I remember feeling like I wanted to understand the world better and the law would give me an understanding for the rules. I was curious about it because during the Internet boom, it felt like there was an invisible world of finance and business transactions that I wanted to understand. After (consulting) for a couple years, I felt I wanted to expand a little bit and the law felt like the logical place to go. I went to Harvard for law school, and even before then, I had always written. I started mostly writing poetry and that was my passion, but my husband — at the time, he was my boyfriend — basically pointed out that it was hard to make a living off of poetry. But if I wanted to reconcile my passion for writing with an actual job, that screenwriting would be a good option. And he got me my first screenwriting software and I packed it up with me when I moved from L.A. to Cambridge.
While I was there, I took a lot of classes, had a great time. I had a couple of law experiences, mostly internships and — actually, all internships, now that I think about it. McKinsey had paid for me to go to law school. They had this expectation I would return to them. In the meantime, I worked for the D.A.’s office in Los Angeles and went to Latham & Watkins for an internship. While I was there, I did property law and what interested me more was the pro bono work I did for a battered woman case that was on appeal. I found that very fulfilling, both on the defense and on the prosecution side. When I finally graduated law school, I still had this passion for writing. It was something I did my whole life. So I felt it was time to write my first proper screenplay. It was terrible timing because I was studying for the California bar, which was not the easiest test. So while I was studying for that, I would take breaks and I would work on my first screenplay. I took the bar and finished the screenplay at the same time. I happily passed the bar, but what happened was that the screenplay I wrote landed me my first job on a show called, ‘Pushing Daisies.’ It was a busy but exciting time of life for me. I was supposed to go back to McKinsey, and I did go back, but I thought it was too good of an opportunity to pass up the writing job. So I made the leap.
Big Law Business: Writing a screenplay while studying the California bar? That must have been a lot.
Joy: Yeah, it was a little stressful. But I feel like there is just never a good time for taking a chance and following your dreams — whatever those dreams are.
You have to pay the bills and do your practical stuff. You can’t just let your regular obligations down. So I was still committed to taking the bar. You might get less sleep, but you get it in there. My whole career has been like that, too. This season of Westworld corresponded with having my first child. I tend to be a masochistic multi-tasker this way. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Big Law Business: So how did you end up using your legal education?
Joy: It’s been a little while. I had a lot of great work experience. I worked for Nina Totenberg for NPR covering the Supreme Court and then worked at Latham & Watkins, which had a great culture there working downtown. But my real passion in law — and it’s something that I do keep renewing my bar membership for every year — but I do like criminal law quite a lot. There is something really rewarding about both sides of it, when you believe in what you’re doing and in who you’re prosecuting and who you’re defending, and I think in some ways, being an effective lawyer is not that different from being an effective storyteller, especially in criminal law. You’re working on opening and closing arguments and they have to be factually grounded and rooted in logic and law. And that’s the same with any story. You can’t have things coming out of thin air. There’s an underlying sense or structure with any screenplay or poem. There are rules within it, even if they aren’t visible, that holds a piece of work together. Law is the same way. The rules alone I don’t think necessarily make the most compelling cases — you have to look at the people involved and to be able to weave compelling narrative about what happened so you can convince the jury that isn’t looking at the minutiae and the law and want to know from the common sense perspective what the right thing is and what should I be feeling?
I don’t think there is any surprise that I was drawn to criminal law. I was in the family violence group at the Los Angeles D.A.’s office and the cases were incredibly difficult and harrowing. I had the chance to go into gang violence or family violence and because I was naive, I thought family violence would be the less disturbing of the two — and I was really wrong. You don’t get prosecuted unless something really bad happened. There was a lot of domestic abuse, murder, child abuse, and I spent a lot of time learning about those cases. When I was at Latham, the case I did was also about a women’s defense and tying it retroactively to a woman who had been convicted of killing her husband, who had been abusive. So I tended toward family criminal law. I think that stuck with me because you get to see both the tragic and dark sides of mankind, but you also see the goodness. You see witnesses and people who stepped up despite fears and come forward to tell their story and defend the people you had in criminal court. That takes a lot of courage and I have a lot of respect for those witnesses who came forth to tell their story. That was my experience in law and I found it to be an incredibly fulfilling challenge.
[Joy said she remains close with and takes inspiration from fellow Harvard law graduates Suzanne Wrubel, a criminal appellate attorney, Tammy Jih, a senior litigation counsel at Google, and Joe Kennedy, a congressman in Massachusetts.]
Big Law Business: You were a summer associate at Latham. Can you talk more about the battered woman case?
Joy: It was a long time ago. When you’re a summer associate, you have not yet passed the bar, so you don’t put your name on it.
[Joy declined to publicly disclose the case name.]
What happened was, California introduced a law that allowed certain domestic violence survivors who were convicted before, I think it was 1992, to petition for new trials to introduce testimony about the effects that the constantly battered women syndrome might have upon their case. And, as the psychology evolved and the courts adjusted, the battered women’s defense became more prevalent in helping women and men and children who are abused. It extended the notion of self-defense, in a way. And so, this was a point to take this law and apply it to people who had been previously convicted.
Big Law Business: What was the result of the case?
Joy: It was successful, we won. And it was a really rewarding experience to be able to have some small part in doing that. Just like it was a rewarding experience in helping the ADA prosecute people who were abusive to women and children. It’s tough in criminal law, just as it is with writers, law school is expensive nowadays and it’s hard to walk away from that debt. It was hard for me to take a job that doesn’t pay as well as corporate law initially. I don’t think it ever pays as well. I was lucky to have those experiences and take this leap. It’s not a totally traditional path for a lawyer.
Big Law Business: What happened after you graduated law school?
Joy: What happened was, McKinsey, this consulting group I worked with for two years after undergrad, they paid for my law school, for the loan for my law school education. They had this amazing loan forgiveness program. At the end of two years, they had forgiven the whole loan. Going to law school for me wouldn’t have been in the cards without a program like that. So it was hard for me to contemplate going back to corporate law because I had such a big incentive from McKinsey. And so I did go back to them for a brief stint, for a month or so. I had that first job offer from the first show I actually applied to and it was such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I never really dreamt it would come my way. I thought I would be a lawyer, or a business person by day, and then tinker with poems at night. When it came my way, I had to take it. The company I was with was incredibly supportive. It helped that I wasn’t going to a competitor — I was just fulfilling this loony passion. It was a big leap to make into the void. And it’s not a traditional path for a screenwriter. You usually start off as an assistant and work your way up. It’s a bit rare to go straight into a writers room.
Big Law Business: How did that opportunity come up?
Joy: I was in San Francisco working with a giant technology client one day and then I got a call and got the job. I was thrilled and said I needed to finish this project [in San Francisco]. They said, “My gosh, you don’t understand this industry. The job starts tomorrow. You’re either here or you’re not.” So I had to fly back by day and it changed my life. Looking back, I don’t regret it one minute.
I had a friend through Stanford, a TV writer, Michael Green, and while I was studying for the bar I asked him — because he was the only person I knew in TV — what the traditional path was like. If you have written a sample, you send it to anyone you know in the industry and see if you can work as an assistant. That’s working from the bottom up. I said, ‘Yeah, I’d do it,’ because it’s a dream of mine and I’d take that risk. He took (my screenplay) to Bryan Fuller [the writer/producer who also created Hannibal, Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls], and he was staffing ‘Pushing Daisies,’ and I went in and met him and then it became my first job offer.
Big Law Business: Westworld seems to have a pretty dark view of humanity. Did your experience as a lawyer, seeing all that trauma, shape your writing for Westworld?
Joy: As a woman I’ve always cared about women’s rights and as a human in general you deplore violence against anyone, especially against children and women. But you know, to confront that kind of thing, to go to the morgue and see some pretty violent stuff, it does leave a mark. It absolutely does. What does leave a mark are people who are advocating for the victims, even after death. People who are dedicating their lives to fighting domestic violence and violence of all sorts. You see the full spectrum of humanity in criminal law and to me, it’s both uplifting and devastating at the same time. I think you also see that there can be people who are trapped in lives that are hell who you have no idea about. And there is real pain in the world sometimes. And some of that stuff, it didn’t leave me. It’s hard for that to leave you. And I don’t think it necessarily should. It’s good to keep in mind that there is suffering and ugliness in this world and we as humans should try our best to fight against it and to be aware of it. Because I think that’s the first part of learning what you can do, and how you can live your life the best way possible.
Big Law Business: You still maintain your bar membership. Why?
Joy: This is a fickle industry and you never know when your number is up. I am happy to tell the stories I’m telling now, but I also know, in life, there are many wonderful ways that people can contribute to the world. And right now, that’s writing for me. And one day, it may be law. Being a lawyer, it’s like holding a key card to a parallel dimension of rule sets in the world, and it’s lovely to make sure that key continues to work and to continue to brush up on the law every so often. And part of it is maybe practical. If I need to, I can hang up a shingle. But there are also cases I would happily work on and contribute to that would be very fulfilling one day.
Big Law Business: So Season Two Westworld. What can you tell us? A new Samurai world? What’s going to happen?
Joy: I think it’s going to be an incredibly mad adventure.