Hulu's 'Reasonable Doubt' and keeping an appropriate distance from your clients
Actors Sean Patrick Thomas (from left), Michael Ealy, Tim Jo, Angela Grovey, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Thaddeus Mixson, McKinley Freeman and Aderinsola Olabode attend the premiere of Hulu’s Reasonable Doubt at NeueHouse Hollywood on Sept. 22 in Hollywood. Photo by Robin L Marshall/Getty Images.
Ah, yet another streaming legal drama to review and analyze. Thank you, television gods, for continuing to bestow a fruitful bounty of hourlong installments to fill my column’s coffers.
Reasonable Doubt, a relatively new series that first aired in the fall on Hulu, is the next offering with high hopes of capitalizing on the public’s love for legal procedurals with a criminal focus. The show initially aired on Sept. 22, 2022, with nine episodes available as of this column. I didn’t know much about the plot, aside from my understanding that the main character is a defense attorney. But never fear, I’ve got a process for moments like these.
As regular readers are aware, when I dive into a new series with multiple installments, I typically visit episodeninja.com to get an idea of which I should review. If nothing catches my eye, I’ll watch the top-rated episode. In this situation, though, there was an interesting twist: I found an episode with a summary that piqued my interest, but it just so happened to be the lowest-rated installment available.
According to the summary for episode No. 5 (“So Ambitious”), “Sixteen years earlier, we meet a bright-eyed Jax in her public defender days when she meets Damon for the first time.” At this point, I’ve done enough preliminary research; I know that Jax is the main character, but I have no idea who Damon is. Nevertheless, the summary interested me because I began my legal career in the public defender’s office as well.
The episode starts with a flashback. We hear comments from Jax regarding her mantra: “Once a PD [public defender], always a PD.” The episode proper begins as she is delivering a closing statement to a jury wherein she focuses on burdens. It’s a small cutaway, but she doesn’t focus enough on that aspect. Be that as it may, we quickly transition to Jax meeting her next client (Damon), who is currently incarcerated and facing homicide-related charges. The entire episode revolves around that relationship.
Overriding first impression: The show is pretty steamy at times and plays up the sexual chemistry the cast has as an ensemble. Nothing seems too forced, even if it is occasionally a bit gratuitous. Regardless, that sexualization may be a strong draw for certain viewers; Reasonable Doubt at times plays more like a soap opera than the procedural drama I initially thought I was reviewing.
Still, the soap aspect is balanced with a healthy dose of legalese and real-world practical interactions to keep the show in the realm of believability and hopefully attract those who may be turned off by the characters’ “extracurricular relations.” It may be the interpersonal interactions and the confrontational aspect they bring that adds the necessary sense of reality for those practitioners watching in hopes of finding some correlation to the grind they live day in and day out.
The trial scenes were enjoyable despite their lack of substance. The montage method employed is something we don’t see that often in this genre, and the hip-hop backing track is lively and exciting. The hype it provides is reminiscent of the adrenaline legal confrontation breeds. It worked well.
Private vs. public practice
The trial scenes are great for a show with this premise. Remember, the “public defender” discussion in the summary is what pulled me into this specific episode; most public defenders live in the courtroom. There also were some overt examples of the “PD” experience that Jax relayed. For one, there were multiple mentions of her financial struggles, with the apparent (and very true) implication that there isn’t any big money in public practice.
Along those same lines, another scene involved another attorney criticizing Jax for not going into private practice while mentioning how she sleeps better at night after moving to a corporate firm. She happily expounded on how the stakes are much lower in that arena—after all, while she must deal with her clients’ potential economic loss, which can be difficult, nothing rises to the level of fighting for someone’s life and liberty in the face of a criminal accusation.
Aside from that commentary regarding the different types of stakes and stress involved in the two sectors, Reasonable Doubt also shows the difference in client communication, or perhaps more aptly put, the difference in the way clients communicate with attorneys in those different settings. When Dax relays to Damon some damning information the prosecution conveyed during her attempts to bully-up for her client, she also explains that his best option is to take a plea deal.
From there, the audience is privy to a conversation those in public defense will find very familiar:
Damon: “Isn’t it your job to believe me?”
Jax: “No, my job is to tell you what your options are.”
Damon: “What would you do if you were me?”
Jax: “I’m not you.“
After some back and forth, Jax eventually tells Damon what he thinks he wants: her opinion. But after telling Damon he should take the deal, his almost immediate response is reminiscent of someone who doesn’t want the truth but instead wants a false sense of comfort: “I thought you were gonna fight for me.”
I’ve also encountered this same exchange in private practice, but it seemed to come more often when I was constantly facing accusations of being a “public pretender” as opposed to a public defender. Indigent defendants are already skeptical of their court-appointed counsel because they know their lack of resources compared to the stack of cases they’re assigned. It’s tough.
Personalized defense vs. personal boundaries
It’s different when you work in private practice. You’re free to tailor your docket so you have a large enough clientele to live comfortably while keeping your caseload manageable. That way, you can comfortably provide the personalized defense a client deserves when they pay you a legal fee to represent them.
However, offering more time to communicate and meet with your clients can open up some conversations leading down a very slippery slope. Making yourself available for your clients’ concerns at the drop of a hat breeds a faux friendship that can potentially blur the lines of the professional attorney-client relationship.
This plays out on screen in Reasonable Doubt. Jax starts to get too personal with Damon. It progresses to the point where he asks if he’s getting too personal. There is a place for opening up to your client and being vulnerable. Sometimes, that’s the only way to get them to be totally honest. But there are lines you can’t cross. One of those boundaries is trampled when the two end up having phone sex after Damon gets a burner and calls Jax late at night.
Now, it’s refreshing to see a strong female lead in such a male-dominated profession, but that aspect of the story, along with that scene in particular, made me uncomfortable. I’ve seen the fallout and consequences when attorneys fall for their clients, and it’s never a happy ending. In that vein, the show is a little too sexualized for me. And that would be my same takeaway whether Reasonable Doubt had a male or female lead.
The two significant benefits of private practice, as opposed to public practice, revolve around compensation and the amount of work, stress, etc., you must endure earning that compensation. The hope is that you have the time to provide more availability and personal approach to clients’ defense. However, that “personal approach” must be measured in light of your ethical and legal responsibilities to your professional obligations.
Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney of the Oklahoma Legal Group, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. His practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes and white-collar crimes.
The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seems to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.