Local Attorney Brings Legal Issues to Life in Debut Thriller

by Irene Racz

Photo by John Lazenby

For 25 years, Bernie Lambek has been a respected attorney in private practice in Montpelier. Now, he can add best-selling “legal mystery” author to his resume.

Not that his novel, Uncivil Liberties, is a national bestseller—at least not yet. But at Montpelier’s Bear Pond Books, where he did a reading and signed books on June 5, it’s currently the top-seller of the year, despite being on the market for only two months.

Its success is due partly to its homegrown appeal. The story is set in Montpelier, with barely fictionalized landmarks—the park, the hardware store, a coffee shop—familiar to anyone who lives here. And Lambek incorporates tongue-in-cheek elements—stores catering to Wiccans and to pets on raw food diets—that perfectly capture the capital city’s quirkiness.

But the book is also being enjoyed further afield, a testament to the quality of the writing and the blending of a whodunit with an examination of some of the thorniest legal issues facing our country today.

Lambek began writing the book in 2011 and continued on and off for the next six years, when he felt inspired and could fit it in among his legal work and family obligations. He and his wife, Linda Sproul, welcomed four grandchildren during that time, and Lambek lost his father.

Several family members, legal associates, and friends—most notably acclaimed novelist and part-time Vermonter Howard Norman—gave him the encouragement he needed to keep writing as well as helpful feedback on various drafts.

“I hadn’t thought about writing a novel before, and I just decided I’d like to try this, even before I had a plot in mind,” he said. “I had these legal issues I’d been dealing with for years—the First Amendment and how it plays out in schools, and prayer at town meetings—and I wanted to make them publicly accessible in the context of fiction.”

Like Lambek, protagonist Sam Jacobson is a dedicated attorney who wants to do the right thing, even when it conflicts with his own beliefs or public opinion. As a puzzling death casts a pall over the community, Sam represents plaintiffs in cases involving a student’s free speech rights, discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the intersection of government and religion.

In real life, Lambek represents some of the institutions that his characters are up against, but with an eye toward helping his clients do the right thing.

“A lot of what I do is counseling clients, many of whom are public entities, to help resolve issues and avoid litigation,” he said. “If you do things right, you don’t get sued. I represent quite a number of school districts, and in a typical school case, I’d be advising a school board or superintendent. Some of those are related to a student’s First Amendment right to speak out on issues. I did represent a resident complaining about the fact that a Christian prayer had opened town meeting year after year.”

A fan of mysteries, Lambek said he wanted his book to offer the suspense typical of that genre while also exploring important issues. “Even though my characters are on the plaintiff side in these cases, the interesting things are the issues and the underlying values, political theory, and constitutional interpretation,” he said. “I’m trying to portray those issues in their complexity, giving the perspectives of both sides.”

A few people at the Bear Pond reading assumed that the character of Sam is autobiographical, but Lambek disputes that. “I used real life events from family and inserted them into characters, but it didn’t mean the characters had the same personalities,” he said. “There are parallels between [Sam’s daughter] Sarah and my son Will. Her back story is similar to Will’s, and some of Sam’s story parallels my practice.”

Lambek said some of his Yale Law School classmates have read the book, and it will be mentioned in the law school’s alumni publication. He has also received positive reviews in the Vermont Bar Journal and Seven Days and online on Goodreads and Amazon. He is in the midst of readings at a number of bookstores and libraries in Vermont and New Hampshire as well as a library in Maine. He has also met with several book groups.

He used Rootstock Publishing, a local company, to publish the book, and other area professionals for editing, artwork, and design. Rather than printing a set number of books, printing is done on demand through IngramSpark, which also provides distribution.

Lambek retains the copyright to the book, which means he is free to work with a major publishing house should the book gain traction beyond our region. Uncivil Liberties is available on Amazon in print and for Kindle, but he encourages interested readers to purchase it from independent booksellers. His website has links to independents, like Bear Pond Books, that can fulfill mail orders.

Lambek’s website: bernielambek.com

Uncivil Liberties on Facebook: facebook.com/UncivilLibertiesBook

Rootstock Publishing website: rootstockpublishing.com

Rootstock on Facebook: facebook.com/rootstockpublishing

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