The Law Firm TV Show–Some Observations From the First Show

I watched the new “reality” TV show from David E. Kelly last night, The “Law Firm.” It was a mildly diverting hour but it lacked the drama and production values of a Burnett show. I’m still not sure if I’m investing in the show for the whole series.

Nevertheless, the show prompted a number of observations and questions:

* The show’s name is absolutely horrible. “The Law Firm”? Nothing creative or distinctive about that name. Trying Googling to find more information on the show! (Not in the top 10 results for “law firm”…surprise!)

* The testosterone/alpha male attitude/ego trips of the contestants was difficult to watch. It’s worse than the Apprentice, and I’m sure it will only get worse. I understand that a good trial lawyer needs self-confidence, but watching too much of that gets tedious.

* I’m still trying to get my head around the Rules of Professional Conduct implications of the show. I’m going to take the show at face value that the clients/disputes are real and the judgments are real. If so, then we have attorney/client relationships between the contestants and the disputants, and all of the applicable rules apply.

Most obviously, do the contestants need to be licensed in CA to represent clients in CA adjudications? A quick perusal of bios suggests that many of the contestants are probably not licensed in CA. Isn’t this Birbrower redux? Following Birbrower, California adopted procedures to allow out-of-state lawyers to practice arbitration proceedings, but it’s not clear to me if the show meets the applicable qualifications.

More generally, presumably the lawyers have to comply with rules like written consent to third party payment of fees, waivers of confidentiality, etc. There should be a blizzard of paperwork to set this up properly. Maybe the TV show would be more interesting if it depicted this! (Right…only to nerdy law professors…)

* There seemed to be two contestants who clearly struggled with their roles more than the others–Kelly (who was dismissed) and Regina (who couldn’t control her witness and hurt her case accordingly, but she was not dismissed). I’m wondering if the producers decided that they just couldn’t bring themselves to dismiss two women (both of color? I couldn’t tell with Regina) on the first episode to avoid charges of discrimination.

* Roy Black is approaching the show as a plaintiff’s lawyer (which is a little surprising given his background). He made that eminently clear in the debriefing when he lambasted a winning team for not seeking punitive damages. Note to contestants: to impress Roy, think like a plaintiff’s lawyer!

* On that front, there was an interesting schism between a judge and Roy Black. The case involved a three-legged dog, and the plaintiff’s team brought the dog into the courtroom unannounced. The judge criticized the team, saying that in a real trial he would have declared a mistrial and sanctioned the team for the stunt. Roy, on the other hand, tore into the defense team for not having anticipated that the dog would show up in the courtroom. Ethical qualm? Not in Roy Black’s world! Like any good plaintiff’s lawyer, he wants the team to push the ethical limits, and sympathy-inducing stunts appear to be both fair game and perhaps required.

So who’s right? The judge who says the dog appearance is sanctionable, or Roy who treats it as de rigeur? I’m no evidence expert, so I can’t speak about what the rules require here. However, it seems to me that the dog belonged on the exhibit list, and the plaintiff team’s omission is at minimum ethically challenged if not an outright violation of the rules.

* The show appears to emphasize only courtroom skills. The show briefly showed some of the background preparations for the trial, but in a glossy, abstract way. Of course, courtroom time is a big part of the practice of comparatively few lawyers; and a much bigger emphasis on the preparation time would have been more reflective of real life (but, except for the catfights, about as exciting as watching paint dry).

The show does not seem to be emphasizing the other skills of a lawyer–researching, interviewing, counseling, negotiating. There won’t be any settlement negotiations in the show because that would obviate the need for a courtroom showdown. Worse, Roy criticized Chris, who did a good cross-examination, for being too invested in researching his case–Roy says research is fine, but he’s more excited about courtroom tricks and oral advocacy.

On this level, I think the show reinforces the standard media stereotypes about lawyers. It’s all about the big show and the tricks you play as part of the show; everything else is not that important. Problem is, in real-life, for most lawyers, the everything else is all they do.

In any case, because Roy is going to emphasize courtroom showmanship, I predict that a criminal litigator (criminal defense or prosecutor–your pick) will win–they come to the show with vastly more courtroom experience than the civil litigators, and the civil litigators won’t be able to learn fast enough to overcome their comparative lack of experience.

UPDATE: Tung Yin, the consummate law professor/reality TV fan, weighs in.

UPDATE 2: The Recorder (registration required) tells us that 8 of the 10 remaining lawyers are members of the California bar.

UPDATE 3: The show died in the marketplace after only 2 episodes. More on its miserable ratings.

UPDATE 4: Like Scott Moss (see the comments), Evan at Legal Underground takes issue with my characterization of plaintiff’s lawyer. I didn’t mean to describe all plaintiff’s lawyers in my remarks, and I apologize if I unintentionally overgeneralized my comments.