Sue Affronti, Assistant District Attorney with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, Federal Litigation Unit, was an associate at Drinker Biddle from 2001 to 2003 in the Corporate and Securities practice group. At the DA’s office, Sue handles habeas corpus appeals in federal court.
Sue recently published two novels, The Sinners (2012) and Vendetta (2013). Sue talks to us about her newly released books, her current role at the DA’s office and her time at the firm.
Q: Looking back, as a young associate, what made you decide to leave Drinker Biddle for the District Attorney’s Office?
A: I always suspected I would end up in the DA’s Office. I interned there after my second year of law school and right away I knew my heart really belonged to the work there. Financially it wasn’t a viable option after law school and I felt I had to at least try a different path. I hoped the excitement I felt about the work we do at the DA’s Office was just a passion for the law but it didn’t work out that way.
Q: The DA’s Office seems to hire most ADAs right out of law school through their summer program. Is that true and how did you learn about the job opening you filling?
A: At the DA’s Office we do have a formal process of hiring law students and that’s where we get most of our people but once in a while there is an odd opening. Honestly, I kept in contact with people I had worked with as an intern and found out about the job opening through those connections. Like anywhere else, networking is important.
Q: Has anything you learned at the firm proven particularly valuable thus far in your career at the DA’s Office?
A: Oddly, the proofing that I did for securities filings ended up being somewhat life changing for me. When my boss at the DA’s Office found out about it, I was flagged to help with our United States Supreme Court filings. In those cases, the materials have to be scanned, retyped and put into different formats. This requires close reading and high-level proofing, much like what I did at Drinker Biddle. Though proofing might sound unimportant, it played a role in my gaining the trust of my superiors and was ultimately part of the reason that I was given the opportunity to sit second chair in our most recent case before the Supreme Court.
Because of the work I did at the firm, I was able to work on important cases and develop a strong relationship with the Deputy of our Law Division very early on. In the 10 years I’ve been here, we’ve had only 5 or 6 cases that were actually argued before the Supreme Court and I can say I sat second chair at one of them. It was a once in a lifetime experience. The issue happened to be a very technical issue about the applicable law but we won with a unanimous opinion.
Q: How was the transition from Drinker Biddle to the DA’s Office?
A: I’m not sure what was more difficult, going from corporate to appellate litigation, or going from a firm to a government agency, but both were certainly a challenge. The biggest difference is the lack of staffing at the DA’s Office. We don’t have any support staff. As a result, you do almost everything yourself. I learned very quickly how to type a lot faster.
Q: What has been your proudest achievement at the DA’s Office?
A: Taking a case to the Supreme Court with the Deputy of our Law Division has been my proudest achievement and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I had also written the brief and argued the issue before the Third Circuit. I was actually the first lawyer in the country to win the issue for the government at the Circuit Court level.
Q: Turning to your recently published novels, did you always aspire to write and publish works of fiction?
A: I’ve always dreamed of being a writer but I never really thought of it in the context of getting published. The best part of publication has been going to book clubs and getting the chance to discuss my characters and stories.
Q: Where did you find your inspiration for your stories and / or characters?
A: I started writing the first book, The Sinners, while I was working at the firm. I was reading Dante’s Inferno and the idea of taking the punishments the author described and pulling them into a modern day, “real” world struck me as fun. I finally settled on an isolated hotel and a killer who chooses seven people who she believes deserve to be punished for their sins. That gave a nice opening for a character-driven thriller where I could address the black and white of right and wrong, and simultaneously the notion of punishment versus redemption.
The writing, editing and publication processes for my second book, Vendetta, were very much the same as they were for the first, but this time my inspiration came from my work at the DA’s Office. I looked at the victims of crime and their families. I’ve always been rather amazed and impressed with the grace these families show. I asked myself what would happen if somebody really went off the deep end after something bad happened to them. I wanted to tell the story of a woman who suffered a huge trauma from a violent act that occurred during her childhood who then evolved into a better person. I think by telling the story as a thriller, it manages to make those emotional connections without becoming heavy or tedious.
Q: You used the pen name Elizabeth Flaherty for both novels. Why?
A: When I was a teenager I worked at Barnes and Noble shelving books and I noticed that Affronti was a positively rotten name for an author. It guaranteed that I’d be on the very top shelf and out of the eye-line of most readers. I decided if I ever got the chance to write books I’d have to use a different name. The name Elizabeth Flaherty is my middle name and my mom’s maiden name.
Q: How did you find the time to write while holding full-time jobs?
A: I love writing so it isn’t like work for me. That’s pretty essential to the whole process, because it is extremely time consuming. I have a personal rule that every night I write at least two pages of whatever book I’m actively writing. I also keep pages of whatever I’m editing in my briefcase, and I work on those on the commute to work and at any other free moment in my day. I’m taking a little break from writing right now but I have two more books that I’m heavily editing.
Q: Do you have any advice for young lawyers embarking on their careers?
A: I think the primary advice I would give a young associate is the same advice I would give a young ADA. Be who you are. Throughout my law career, I have seen people succeed and others fail. Surprisingly, this has little to do with intelligence or even determination. Those who are true to themselves tend to succeed and others who are trying to be what they think people want them to be tend to fail. We tell young ADAs prepping for their first argument that they have to use their own voice to convince the court. It never works as well if you are simply mimicking someone else.
You can read more about Sue’s latest works on her website: www.flahertybooks.com, and you can contact Sue at elizabeth flahertybooks.com.