Why are TV Lawyers Ethically Challenged? That's Hollywood, Writers Say
Three unrepentant lawyers who changed careers and now create popular culture’s view of the profession—they write for TV’s Law & Order, Boston Legal and Shark—talked freely Friday afternoon about how and why they often portray lawyers as unethical and disgusting, as well as mangling various litigation rules and procedures in their scripts.
And the audience of about 100 lawyers in a hotel conference room at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Century City, Calif., was seat-edge rapt and clearly as entertained as the laypeople who know the profession and the justice system by way of those very shows.
One essential lesson: There are rules and procedures of television writing that must be followed, otherwise there would be no advertisers, no money and, alas, no show.
Commercials rule in other ways, too. Four or five times per show, there must be an “act out,” which is a very grabbing and dramatic moment just before a commercial. Suspense or heightened drama keeps’em watching.
Here’s an act out for this ABA Journal story:
“I frankly don’t care [whether the dramas might hurt lawyer image],” says Bill Fordes, a writer for Law & Order who spent six years as an assistant district attorney in New York City before switching to complex white-collar and civil litigation with a firm. “I write what amuses me.” He points out that if you want, you can watch honest lawyers on Court TV, which gets only about 600,000 viewers at most and thus nowhere near the dollars for 30- and 60-second commercials flowing to L&O.
Commercial break following act out: The program, “Lawyers on TV—the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—And the People Who Script Them That Way” was sponsored primarily by the ABA Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice. The moderator was Michael Asimow, the section’s chair and a professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Law, with a pedagogical specialty in law and popular culture.
The panelists: Fordes, a staff writer and sometimes co-executive producer; Bill Chais, a writer and supervising producer the CBS legal drama Shark, formerly a public defender and then criminal defense lawyer; Craig Turk, a producer/writer on ABC’s Boston Legal, who has fled in yet other directions from the practice of law, such as being chief counsel to John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid and—thanks to the Hollywood writers’ strike—recently has been working again for McCain; and Chuck Rosenberg, who was earlier to the game as a technical adviser for LA Law, the groundbreaking legal drama that ran from 1986-1994, and who still does same with Boston Legal and has a full-time intellectual property and entertainment law practice in nearby Santa Monica.
There’s nothing they can do if the commercials run long and boring and lose some viewers. Maybe the jolt of another act-out will help here in getting back to the story. During Q-and-A with the audience at the end of the program, Chais was asked to describe the transition from practicing law carefully and meticulously to now writing about it fast and loose.
“Easiest thing I’ve ever done,” he said, eliciting an audience response that could have been recorded as a laugh track for a comedy show. “We do take it seriously, but once you say we’re going to relax what is real, it’s just so easy.”
Rosenberg points out that real trials are messy, too, and that appellate courts sometimes take that into consideration and, for example, let some evidentiary sloppiness slide. He referred to himself as the “balance police” when he was a technical adviser for LA Law. For example, Rosenberg says, he would have added something to the wildly dramatic ending to the recent 13-part series Damages on the FX network. The plaintiffs lawyer played by Glenn Close presented a gotcha video to defendant Ted Danson (without his lawyer present) and extorted a $2 billion class action settlement from him.
Rosenberg suggests Danson’s character could have responded “that’s criminal extortion,” and Close’s character could have retorted, “So turn me in.”
Even the best good-guy TV lawyers step over the line occasionally these days (unlike “Perry Mason” of yore)—and that means even Sam Waterston’s character Jack McCoy, who recently was bumped upstairs from assistant to now district attorney on Law & Order,” says the writer Fordes.
Another panelist points out that probably the most ethically conflicted major character on all of television is James Spader’s Alan Shore on Boston Legal. Replies the Boston Legal writer Turk: These guys’ ethical violations are really for a greater good.
Turk, a Republican who has worked on Capitol Hill, described his enjoyment at developing the dynamic between William Shatner’s character Denny Crane, “a larger-than-life conservative Republican as mentor to Spader, who is young, sharp and progressive, but they sort of found each other.”
And Turk luxuriates in the two or more minutes at the end of the show, when the two characters share cigars and scotch on a balcony, rehashing what just happened in the drama….”to bring human terms to what you’ve just seen plot-wise.”
It is likely that more than a few members of this live audience were imagining new plots for their careers, such as mangling the law and the image of lawyers for fame and fortune.