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I’ve watched a lot of lawyer shows over the years. The first I remember was “The Paper Chase” which was actually about law school. After watching that I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer just from the shear amount of stress it appeared that law students have. (Of course I did eventually go to law school and handled it better than my grade school self thought I could). After that I went through various shows, most notably “L.A. Law” and “The Practice.” During and after law school, I stayed away from lawyer shows, since by the end of the work day I wanted to get away from the office but lately I’ve been watching “The Good Wife,” with my good wife about a woman who goes back to work as a 2nd year associate in Chicago after her husband, the District Attorney, is removed from office and goes to jail in a scandal. I enjoy the show, but there are some things about it, and most other lawyer shows I’ve seen, that have me scratching my head. Usually those things are not about the law. I don’t know the law of Illinois, where the show is set, but the general legal principles seem to be followed. I assume they have legal consultants for the show (where do I get that gig) who help guide the writers on the law. Most of the things that are procedural issues or the business of the law firm more than the law itself. If I wanted to make a more “realistic” version of this or other legal TV shows I’d have to do some of the following.
1. One “big case” a season. Week to week on “The Good Wife” they get a $80M settlement, a $55M class action, a $30M verdict etc. Those lawyers make a lot of money every week to keep working in private practice. Unless rent in a Chicago office is over $1M a month, I don’t know why the partners keep stressing about their client list and billable hours. My show would be maybe one “big case” a season, with a lot of little cases week to week. That is closer to how real lawyers operate. Any more than that, they are running for Senate, retiring to Malibu, or start commentating on Court TV.
2. Show the build up. The “one big case” rule would also allow people to show that a case is not signed up, worked up and tried in a few days. Most shows have our hero lawyers and their investigators finding out the twist in the middle of the trial, changing their whole strategy, and coming out the victor. Yes, sometimes this happens (and it does make a great story when it does) but the workup of a case by the attorneys and investigators can take months, if not years. Little cases take a few months as well, but we have to give a nod to some entertainment values. Nobody wants to watch a guy shuffle through papers for an hour and wonder where the hell stuff is.
3. Adversaries not Enemies. My experience is that lawyers are much more professional than what is depicted. It is understandably difficult for Hollywood, America, and even our own clients to understand that we can be an aggressive advocate for their rights, and our opponent can be for her client, without her being mean, nasty or just evil. Those people do exist, and some of them are attorneys, but we know who they are, they are a minority, and we know how to deal with them.
4. Relax the Firm Politics. “The Good Wife” has had a few on-going storylines about partners backstabbing each other, getting voted out, and associates competing against each other like it was the only job in Chicago. Law partnerships breakup just like any other business, but, especially where the lawyers are good, it is usually done with good will. The competition over clients is overblown as well. In North Carolina, the client gets to choose where to go when a lawyer leaves a firm. The case belongs to the client, not the lawyer or the lawyer’s firm. Sometimes the former lawyer or lawfirm will have a claim for legal fees for work if a client leaves the firm to follow a former partner (or for any other reason), but that claim would be on the work the former lawyer actually performed, so the client should not have to pay for double for legal work.
--Bradley A. Coxe is a practicing attorney in Wilmington, NC with Hodges & Coxe PC who specializes in Personal Injury, Medical Malpractice, Homeowner's Associations, Contract and Real Estate disputes and all forms of Civil Litigation. Please contact him at (910) 772-1678.