The road not taken: Alexander McCall Smith on the lawyer he almost was

I buried my law career when I was asked to dig up worms.

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I was ushered into the boardroom of a firm of Edinburgh solicitors. The clock ticked in the silence. Eyes were upon me. At 21, I still looked at the floor a lot. In those days a solicitor’s training in Scotland was called an apprenticeship and involved a great deal of fetching and carrying and the bundling of documents. Final-year law students looked forward to it with a certain dread, as it represented the looming real world, which is never quite as comfortable and carefree as the student existence.

I was offered the job, and would have taken it had a lively law professor not asked me to go fishing with him. He wanted somebody to help him dig up worms, and I was happy to do that. He then suggested that I should do a PhD under his supervision. As well as being a keen fisherman he was the world authority on a particular branch of Roman law. How could I decline?

And so I did not go down the road of the solicitor’s apprenticeship, but began the PhD. Like all of life’s decisions, the consequences of taking one turning rather than another can be profound. Had I decided differently and gone to work for the law firm, I would never have had lunch, 11 years later, with the then vice-chancellor of the University of Botswana and would not have accepted his invitation to go to work in Gaborone for a year. And had I not done that, I would never have sat down one day to write about Mma Ramotswe and her No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. 

And without that I would never have been able to write any of my Isabel Dalhousie books. Nor would I have bumped into Armistead Maupin at a party and he would not have made the remark to me about serial novels that I subsequently put into a piece I wrote for the Herald, which was read by the editor of the Scotsman. He then invited me to lunch and proposed that I write a serial novel for his paper. And if that lunch had not taken place, it would have meant that the Scotland Street novels and Bertie would never have come into existence.

Our lives are an elaborate bit of weaving. Pull at a thread, and the whole tapestry takes a different shape.

This article is from our “Road not taken” series

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special