Law, Camera, Action! Attorneys with side gigs as TV commentators are always on call
Lawyers have to be available when the phone rings, but few go to the lengths Danny Cevallos has gone. He installed a Bluetooth speaker in his bathroom so he won’t miss a call when he’s in the shower. It’s part of what he calls being “relentlessly available,” which is how he rose from practicing law in a small firm to high-profile legal analyst for NBC News and MSNBC.
A criminal defense attorney whose broadcast career began on a local TV program, Cevallos, a partner at Philadelphia-based Cevallos & Wong and of counsel at Edelman & Edelman in New York City, is among a growing legion of attorneys who combine an active law practice with news broadcasts. Legal commentating became a cottage industry in the mid-1990s during O.J. Simpson’s double-murder case. The story dominated the news for several years, fueling a demand for experts to explain the legal twists to a hungry TV audience. With celebrities’ and political figures’ legal controversies feeding the insatiable appetite of social and traditional media consumers, the need for analysts is escalating.
Ari Melber practiced four years with legendary First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams before joining MSNBC. He became the network’s chief legal correspondent in 2015 and has anchored the daily program The Beat with Ari Melber since 2017. As the Mueller investigation heated up, viewership mushroomed. In 2018 The Beat averaged 1.5 million viewers per night, up 35% from 2017, according to an MSNBC spokesperson.
“We are going through a period of history where it feels like a lot of America is going to law school together,” says Melber, who won an Emmy in 2016. “I think about that as we explain the concepts and try to walk through what it means when the government arrests and charges someone, what rights they are afforded and why we have this system. It’s an imperfect system, and reporting could help improve the many things that we know don’t work as well as they should in American justice.”
Melber didn’t pursue a career in broadcast journalism—it found him. His articles on politics, law, public policy and the media for The Atlantic and The Nation drew the attention of media execs who recruited him. Being a superior writer and/or litigator doesn’t guarantee success on camera, but Melber turned out to be a natural.
Others, including Cevallos and fellow NBC News/MSNBC legal contributor Katie Phang, manage to juggle a full caseload and frequent TV commitments. But it’s not easy. As the saying goes, the law is a jealous mistress.
“I love doing legal commentary, but my work for the network is subject to my work as a lawyer. The clients have to come first, and they do,” says Phang, a partner with Berger Singerman in Miami who practices complex commercial litigation, family law, criminal defense and corporate governance/internal investigations. She is asked to analyze a wide range of topics but declines any that are outside her expertise.
Others are game for almost any legal issue, but that multiplies the research time needed. Cevallos found himself immersed in South African legal procedure during the 2014 trial of Oscar Pistorius, the South African Olympic and Paralympic runner who was convicted of killing his girlfriend.
“In the Trump era, we’re dealing with really interesting constitutional issues, some of which have never been dealt with before,” he says. “I don’t know of a single ‘emoluments clause lawyer.’ You have to talk about things that just a few years ago were hypothetical.”
Phang says that sometimes she can’t accept a TV booking because of a hearing or another legal commitment. Couldn’t a colleague make the appearance for her?
“Yes, but I find that when a client hires you, they want you,” she says. “Ninety-nine percent of my clients do.”
In some practice areas, clients don’t have that latitude. “The nature of criminal defense is to have several cases on the same day in different courthouses and different counties. I have stepped in for colleagues in court, and they have stepped in for me. There’s always someone who will help you out,” Cevallos says.
“In my world, you develop a list of what you can cancel to rush to a ‘hit’ [industry lingo for a TV appearance] and what you can’t,” he says. “I very quickly created a hierarchy. If it’s a doctor appointment, I’ll go to the studio and keel over dead another day. If it’s a trial, I have to decline.”
CNN/HLN (Headline News) legal analyst Joey Jackson, a partner at Watford Jackson in New York City, was in the middle of a murder trial in New York when Judge Judy invited him to Los Angeles to try out for a position as a judge on Hot Bench, a show she was creating. She needed him that Friday, which was two days away, and it would have him back in court by Monday, missing one trial day.
How understanding were the judge and opposing counsel? “Zero!” says Jackson, laughing. The prosecutor “pitched a fit,” he says, calling it “an outrage” because he had witnesses lined up to testify. The judge initially concurred but relented after Jackson persisted. “They could hold me in contempt, do whatever they wanted with me, but I was not going to pass up that opportunity,” he says.
Cevallos has designed his life to minimize logistical conflicts. His home and office are two blocks apart and just a jump to the studios in Manhattan. “I’ve got the subway timed down to the second. If I catch the 2-3 [train] right on time, I can get to 30 Rock in about 25 minutes,” he says.
Daliah Saper, principal at Saper Law in Chicago, can walk to most of the local TV studios from her office. For example, she says, describing a recent morning, “I have a deposition and an appearance on Fox 32’s Good Day Chicago morning program. I’m going to be at the studio at 8:45. I’ll be on air at 9:17 for a segment that will be no longer than five minutes, and then I’ll walk to my depo [that starts] at 10.”
Fast pace, quick study
It doesn’t always stack up that neatly. “The law and news are both a lot of research, fact-checking, making sure the product is right—except with the news it’s done at about 90 times the speed as the law. You’re being very careful, double-checking everything, but with a deadline that’s much shorter than most litigation deadlines,” Cevallos says.
The staccato pace of the news “can feel quite overwhelming at times,” Melber says. “When I was practicing law, the hours were long but highly planned and predictable. I think that’s the biggest difference between law and broadcast journalism.”
Unpredictability has an upside, though. It’s called adrenaline. “I love being around breaking news,” Cevallos says. “It’s like the excitement of skydiving for people like me who would never go skydiving.
“Often when an indictment or a court ruling comes out, someone on the team prints it out and hands it to you while we’re on set. When you’re seeing us reading it on air, we’re reading it for the first time. I’ll tell ya, nothing gets your adrenaline going like being on live TV and getting a document that the whole world is getting at exactly the same time, and trying to make sense of it.”
The effect a reporter’s stories can have on society can also be a rush, but with it comes a weighty responsibility.
“When you’re practicing law, you certainly have a high impact on a small number of people, and you have a very serious obligation to your client, but the day-to-day can be fairly narrow in scope,” Melber says. “With a nightly news program, particularly in this era, we have a bigger obligation in what stories we pick and who we interview. Sometimes we’re doing original reporting that becomes part of the public facts of the story. We have broken advance stories that we later learned were being watched by the prosecutors and defense counsel.”
Expertise in a hot-topic area can give an attorney an edge in getting hits. Some lawyers can comment generally on social media law, but few can explain in-depth the emerging issues of anonymous online defamation, sexting, revenge porn, cyberbullying and catfishing. Saper’s expertise in those areas propelled her into prominence when she took a headline-grabbing case in 2008 that went to the Illinois Supreme Court in 2012 (Bonhomme v. St. James). Her client claimed she was the victim of an elaborate social media hoax in which a woman posed as a man online and defrauded her of thousands of dollars in gifts.
Requests for Saper to speak poured in from media outlets “all over the planet,” she says, including Europe, Asia and North America. That put her on the fast track as a broadcast legal commentator on ABC, CNBC, Fox News and local Chicago stations.
“Once I got on the ‘short list,’ I didn’t really have to do anything. The offers just keep coming in,” she says.
Abed Awad, a partner with Awad & Khoury of Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, is a leading authority on Islamic law and the laws of Muslim countries. His native fluency in Arabic and English and his specialized legal expertise have landed him appearances on PBS, ABC, CNN and the BBC.
His first hit in the United States came a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when ethnic hate crimes erupted in New Jersey. He and a group of community leaders reached out to the Passaic County prosecutor’s office and the police in Paterson, New Jersey, and held a press conference. “That was really the start of it,” he says. “Then I started getting calls from the media.”
During the 2004 presidential campaign, Awad had a one-year contract with Al-Jazeera to commentate on American politics from a democratic perspective. He had to travel from New Jersey to the studio in Washington, D.C., weekly. “It took me away from my practice a lot, and that definitely hurt my bottom line,” he says.
In the long run, though, he found it worthwhile. “For any lawyer, being a media commentator is a good thing. It forces you to be sharper, more refined and articulate. It makes you be a better lawyer,” Awad says. “It can also brand you. As lawyers in this very crowded market, how do you shine? How do you distinguish yourself from others?”
Television may or may not increase an attorney’s book of business. “It helps, but not as much as you might think,” Jackson says.
He says his television appearances generate calls, but they don’t necessarily turn into cases. The reason is largely geographic. “New York is a sliver of the country,” he says. “We [also] get calls and social media inquiries from the 49 states I don’t practice in, and a lot of the issues are outside my wheelhouse,” says Jackson, a trial lawyer who practices criminal defense, government investigations, regulatory enforcement, labor union arbitration, wrongful death and complex litigation. He says attorneys who appear on local TV stations are more likely to get calls from prospective clients in their jurisdiction.
Some attorneys decide to use their legal skills in full-time broadcast journalism. Others toy with the idea but don’t act on it. Phang says she had an opportunity early in her legal career to become a full-time general assignment reporter for a local CBS affiliate on which she had appeared as an expert on legal issues.
“I turned them down, but I was so tempted to take it because I was definitely bitten by the TV bug,” she says. “I felt it would be much better for me to focus on honing my craft as a lawyer because frankly, it gives you street cred.”
Credibility is a reporter’s stock in trade, and that’s what gets an attorney invited to give legal commentary. “I can use current examples, like, ‘That issue came up when I was at the Southern District [of New York] making a proffer for a client last year, and let me explain what a proffer means,’ or ‘Yesterday when I was in front of judge whoever, here was the concern about that issue,’ ” Jackson says. “It makes what I say more authentic than me drawing upon stale experiences or saying, ‘when I was in a courtroom 10 years ago.’ ”
Jackson says his entree into legal commentating was a “fluke.” About 10 years ago, before he started his own firm, he was driving to court when the phone rang. An editorial producer from Fox News had seen his website and asked if he would comment on a breaking case. Jackson was stunned because he had no connection to the case, but he accepted. That led to frequent TV appearances on Fox and eventual calls from other networks, including MSNBC. Jackson refers to his early years as a “five-year internship at Fox News” because there was no pay.
He finally got the call he had been waiting for: an invitation to try out for an anchor position on In Session on Court TV. He was hired, but the network was disbanded a few months later. Next came a series of consecutive contracts with HLN that started as 90-day deals, followed by a one-year contract with the network. The arrangement was later combined with sister network CNN under a series of renewed two-year contracts. Today Jackson appears daily on CNN/HLN.
Phang’s on-air debut came in 2005 when she was a homicide prosecutor with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and was trying a lot of cases that drew headlines. A reporter from the local CBS affiliate told her the station’s news director wanted to talk to her about doing a point/counterpoint segment on the morning shows. The subject dominating the news then was Michael Jackson’s child sex abuse trial.
“I started doing day-to-day coverage of the Jackson trial. I would get to the station at 4 in the morning, do the show and then go to my job,” Phang says.
One day a friend who was working for Fox News called and said, “Can you do the Greta Van Susteren show tonight?” That launched Phang’s broadcast career.
Cevallos’ break came after a social event where he chatted with the producer of a local TV program about her work. He followed up with an email that basically said, “Listen, if you ever need a lawyer on the show, let me know and I’d be happy to come on.” He got the call, and two days later Cevallos appeared on It’s Your Call With Lynn Doyle, a program on local issues in Philadelphia.
“Before the show I was terrified, during the show I was terrified, and afterward I was despondent because I thought I did a bad job,” he says. “But yet, all I could think about was, ‘When do I get to do that again?’ ”
He didn’t have to wait long. A local network affiliate reached out, and it eventually turned into a multiyear arrangement at a cable network. “I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was. I never dreamed this was a real job that people could have,” he says.
Cevallos spent four years as a CNN legal analyst, where he became a regular on shows including Erin Burnett OutFront and AC 360 with Anderson Cooper.
He also appeared as a guest host of In Session on Court TV. (After a decade off the air, Court TV was relaunched in May.) His work for Court TV was “a very exciting time and a very terrifying time,” Cevallos says.
“Guest hosting was a thrill, but it was a crash course in TV because anchors have a really challenging job. It’s not just reading the teleprompter. You have to be able to respond to breaking news.” he says. “It’s like [being] an air traffic controller. There are lots of spinning plates for anchors, and they have to make it look effortless—and they do. It’s a really tremendous skill set.”
It’s all about preparation
Jackson’s CNN/HLN handlers helped him develop skills as a legal anchor and assigned a coach to work with him so he could also fill in as an anchor on other shows. He didn’t have to weed “legalese” out of his vocabulary because as a trial lawyer and an adjunct professor of civil rights and business law, he knew how to explain complex legal concepts. His challenge was to master the delivery of on-air commentary (such as the pitch of his voice and the speed of his speech).
Those coaching sessions cut even more hours out of Jackson’s day. He works seven days a week (12 to 14 hours on weekdays, eight on Saturdays and four on Sundays), dividing his time equally between his practice and broadcast work.
Putting in the time is essential, Phang says. “Just like in law, if you’re overprepared, then you should have some comfort that you won’t be asked a question you don’t know the answer to,” she says. “In court I’ll say, ‘Your honor, I cannot intelligently answer that question, but if you’ll afford me the opportunity to look into it, I will.’ You can’t do that on TV. But I can say, I don’t know specifically what the law says in that jurisdiction, but for example, in Florida we do x, y and z.”
Cevallos points to another common thread between the courtroom and the newsroom. “If you’re going into court, you’re preparing to tell a judge or jury something; if you’re going into a network, you’re preparing to tell an audience something. Either way, you’ve got to get your facts straight,” he says.
Being readily available earns a commentator more hits.
“My goal early on, and still today, is for the producers to know if there’s a breaking news situation they can call me on my cell anytime. I don’t mind the phone ringing at 3 a.m.; I don’t mind it ringing at 10 at night. And it has rung at those times,” says Cevallos, who has an infant daughter. “When I have to jump up from the dinner table and run to the studio, my wife understands.” (Sara Ganim is a CNN correspondent.)
Still, it’s difficult to plan leisure time with family. In February, Phang did a telephone interview while she was on her family’s annual ski vacation in Utah. She had studied on the flight from Miami and arrived in Park City late Friday. An MSNBC driver picked her up Saturday at 2:30 a.m. for 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. shows. She stayed at the studio in Salt Lake City to do another show and then spent a few hours with her husband, daughter and mother before going back for another program.
“My family is used to this,” she says. “The demands of the job are the same whether I’m away for work or pleasure. It’s not a normal life by any standard, but it has become the new norm for me and my family. At any minute if I get notified that I’m needed for a show, I have to study, think, make notes. Then I have to get to studio, do hair and makeup, do the show and come back to wherever I was.”
Saper, too, was plucked from a recent vacation, but it required a longer trip to the studio. When she was vacationing in Mexico with her family, a big case hit the news that was totally on point with one she had litigated.
“I had made friends with the 20/20 producers, so I sent a quick email saying, ‘Hey, if you want commentary, let me know.’ I heard back within two hours,” she says.
She expected a phone or Skype interview, but the producers wanted her to do a live interview in the studio in New York. She told them she’d have to decline because she was in Mexico, but the network solved that pronto: “No problem. We’ll fly you here and give you a hotel room.” When Saper said she didn’t have business clothing with her, they asked what size she wore. After a brief hold, they said she could borrow an outfit from one of the producers. And off she went.
“It was a fun, whirlwind adventure out of that simple email, based on the relationship I had built,” she says.
You, too, can be a commentator!
Not everyone has relationships with networks, but Jackson says that shouldn’t stop you from reaching out. “If you want to get into legal commentary, it’s 100 percent [sure] that you can. It’s [always] open season,” he says, adding that there are a variety of ways to get into the business.
For example, he says, “You can contact a commentator you’ve seen on-air and say, ‘I admire your work, and I’d like to hear your story. Could we have a cup of coffee?’ I find that most of my colleagues here and at other networks are pretty accommodating. They’ll give you five or 10 minutes of their time, and thereafter they may make introductions.”
Cevallos is also encouraging. “You can get your start anywhere. There are so many avenues to it, no matter where you live,” he says. “You can start right away. Contact your local TV station. Write for academic journals, your firm’s newsletter, a bar association publication. Just start creating. When I started out, I didn’t know if anyone would see the stuff I wrote. It didn’t matter to me. It was the excitement of creating.”
His drive hasn’t waned.
“I’m just as hungry as I was when I was appearing on local TV. I still pitch ideas; I still want to be involved. It’s the only job that I don’t consider work at all. Any litigator will tell you they do hard, hard work, but this is hard work that I can’t wait to do.”
CorrectionIn print and initial online versions of “Law, Camera, Action!” June, Daliah Saper should have been identified as principal attorney at Saper Law.
The Journal regrets the error.
Darlene Ricker, a legal affairs writer and book editor based in Lexington, Kentucky, is a former staff writer and editor for the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times.