Attorney and Award-Winning Writer: Meet the Forrest Firm’s Jamie Lisa Forbes (Part One)

At the turn of the year, the Forrest Firm expanded into the Greensboro market by merging with the talented team at Worth Law Firm. A key benefit of that merger for our clients and professionals has been the addition of attorney Jamie Lisa Forbes.

Originally hailing from a ranching family in Wyoming, Jamie is one of those people who has lived many professional lives while marrying, having children, and now doting on her five grandchildren. Before going back to the family ranch after graduating from the University of Colorado, she spent 14 months in Israel. There, while learning Hebrew and working on a kibbutz, she met her husband, Derek Smith. Later, she began a career in the law, first as a legal assistant, then as a paralegal. Her quest to establish herself in the law took her to Greensboro in the early 1990s. From there, she took the plunge to go to law school at UNC, where she began another passion that would take her to the heights of another profession, fiction writing.

She has published two books: the first, a novel called Unbroken, is the winner of the 2011 WILLA Award for Contemporary Fiction, while her 2015 short story collection, The Widow Smalls and Other Stories, is the winner of a High Plains Book Award, in the short story category.

We had the pleasure of sitting down recently with Jamie. Known for her warmth and knack for storytelling, she didn’t disappoint when she became the subject of the story.

Forrest Firm:  What was life on the ranch like as a young newlywed?

Jamie Lisa Forbes: “After my time in Israel, I came back with my new husband to our family ranch in Wyoming. That first winter, the winter of 1978-1979, was one of worst winters in recorded history in Wyoming. I had lived on a ranch my whole life, but handling that day-to-day was very difficult. That first year was the roughest ever. But we both loved it and loved raising our two children there.”

FF: How did you transition from ranching to the law?

JLF:  “We were part-owners of the ranch, along with other family members. That time period when I changed careers coincided with a big change in the state of Wyoming.  Land values, which had not been all that high in southeastern Wyoming, changed as out-of-state folks, attracted by the natural beauty of the state, began buying up ranches. That activity sent property values soaring, and my family wanted to sell for a big profit. Derek and I were devastated, as we really loved the ranching life.”

“But prior to that sale, I had already entered the legal field. I felt that my husband could use more freedom to run the ranch as he saw fit and I became his weekend help. I became a legal secretary in 1983,  and then a paralegal in 1986.  I decided to move to North Carolina in 1993, and I got a paralegal job in two weeks. That was a validation of my move to a legal career. The children and I moved here, while my husband stayed in Wyoming until the ranch sold. A few years later, I decided to go to law school at UNC.”

FF:  What was law school like, going back mid-career, nearly 15 years after you’d finished your undergraduate degree at CU?

JLF:  “It was good and bad going to school after already having a career in the law.  After working in multiple law practices for over ten years, law school was boring.  Just lots of memorization. By my third year though, I started thinking more seriously about a book that I’d thought off and on about writing for several years. I had already written some short fiction and had some success with that. So finally, during my third year of law school, around 2000-2001, I decided to just start writing the story in my head to see where it would lead.”

“I finished law school while writing this story, and I then launched my law career at Barron and Berry in Greensboro. I finally finished the book in 2007, several years into my law practice. But the question remained, was it publishable?”

FF: So, how did you resolve that question?

JLF:  “Well, for about three years, I started editing the book with several other friends and writing professionals who assisted in reading the work and suggesting edits. I finally had my breakthrough in 2010, when an editor, who rejected the book, but told me I was on the right track, made one big suggestion for a change, and then, after making that change, the very next publisher accepted it. That finished book was my first novel, Unbroken, a novel about ranch life, specifically about women raising families on ranches.”

FF:  What’s it like to come out of the gate with your first published novel and receive critical acclaim, as you did with winning the WILLA Award?

JLF:  Validation from the critics was huge. It’s two separate experiences—writing a book and then having others read it and enjoy it so much. That first book was really a venture in writing something in my head, and the characters just came to life. They could have been my neighbors, and I was almost sad when I finished writing the book.”

“Winning the WILLA Award (named after Willa Cather) was truly special. That award is given to recognize outstanding writing featuring women in the West, and it was stunning receiving recognition for writing about the type of women who no one ever sees from the highway as they rocket through Wyoming at eighty miles per hour. I felt like I just knew these characters, even though they were fictional, and I think that came through in the writing.”

“Being recognized by other women, other women writers especially, is an honor and a blessing. Women have been ascendant in writing due to the women’s movement, going back to the turn of the last century with writers like Edith Wharton and Willa Cather herself. The confluence of the women’s movement with the rise of such writers as Wharton and Cather encouraged more and more talented women to express their own voices in writing.  Certainly, I am the beneficiary of that trend.”

Tune in to the Forrest Firm blog tomorrow for part two of our interview with Jamie Lisa Forbes of our Greensboro office.