Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Law Firm Breaks Up-This one a Reality Show

“A wonderful thing happened after the second episode of the reality series, The Law Firm aired a few months ago---it was cancelled.”

This is the opening sentence of a review written by my decrepit friend the ever ancient Anne Thrope. Miss Anne, as she likes to be called, once worked as a ghost writer, I mean staff attorney for the United States Supreme Court. Perhaps this is apocryphal, but she is reputed to have chastised Justice Taney for his infamous Dred Scott decision. From time to time I have called upon Miss Anne, when she is alert, to contribute to my column. Her decades of experience make her uniquely qualified to offer advice to troubled attorneys and judges. And that has been her primary contribution in the past.

But astute reader that you are, you have accurately perceived that today’s column is not of that genre. And no doubt you are asking yourself why I simply did not write the review myself. The simple answer is that I have a near pathological aversion to “reality” shows. Most of these shows highlight the baser human characteristics of duplicity, mendacity, envy, betrayal, corruption, anger, and calumny, to name a few. Yes, these traits are not imaginary, but I think that portraying them as the salient characteristics of human nature skews reality.

My bias would surely hinder my writing a balanced review of The Law Firm. True, columnists are expected to express their views, but my distaste for this genre could distort my account of the show to as much of a degree as I believed the show skewed its portrayal of the legal system. So I turned to my old pal Miss Anne to enlighten my readers.

This is what follows Miss Anne’s unequivocal opening sentence:

“Rumor has it that subsequent shows already taped will be shown on NBC’s cable channel Bravo. Hardly an apt term to characterize the series. There isn’t a 'Boo' Channel is there? If watching tyro lawyers stumbling over their irrelevant questions to parties with frivolous lawsuits is what legal practice has come to, then Dickens was right. It is not just the law that is 'a ass,' but so are we for watching the degradation of a grand profession. To think my caregiver awakened me from a sound stupor to watch the entire show. This was a sacrifice for which this reviewer deserves commendation.

“Describing the show from A, ‘awful and atrocious' to Y, had to stop at Y, there are no derogatory words beginning in Z, except maybe zombie, which is what I felt like after watching the show. Y gives us 'Yahoo,' 'yikes,' and 'yuck.'

“The senior partner of the firm, the famous litigator and TV analyst Roy Black is, I mean was, the senior partner of the firm. He oversees a bevy of newly admitted lawyers who divide into teams to litigate real' cases with 'real' clients presided over by 'real' judges, retired judges that is. A clause in their contract said, 'WARNING-APPEARANCE ON THIS SHOW MAY BE DETRIMENTAL TO PRIVATE JUDGING CAREERS.'

"It is rumored that in one episode, the legendary Judge Broadman, known for his unorthodox sentences in criminal cases, issued a unique ruling in a civil case. He ordered the CEO of a corporation who had defrauded the shareholders to wear a Norplant device for life. Broadman reasoned it would be detrimental to society should the CEO pass on to her offspring a genetic disposition for dishonesty.

“I wonder how the judges recruited for the show were conned, I mean induced to participate in this series designed to reveal how brand new lawyers prepare for cases that go to trial. That should have big audience appeal. Already I was suspicious. What law firm would allow newly born lawyers in shell shock from the bar examination to actually try a case? The malpractice premiums alone could lead to bankruptcy.

“Like other reality shows, this one caters to the audience’s desire to see someone sacrificed, destroyed, humiliated or ruined, a sport the Romans carried to extremes before the fall of the empire. Are we far behind? The lawyers who screw up the most are told to turn in their Westlaw passwords and take a one-way trip in the elevator to the lobby. No lifelines on this show.

"We see young associates in a law firm preparing for two cases. Two lawyers are on one side and two on the other. One case involves a plaintiff suing his ex-friend for putting up a gag 'wanted' poster in his small convenience store where most patrons know plaintiff. The poster accuses plaintiff of belonging to a terrorist organization called 'EAT ME.' The poster is so obviously a bad joke that even George Bush wouldn’t have sent this plaintiff to Guantanamo. The young associates interview witnesses and prepare for trial. They disparage their opponents and focus on weaknesses in their personalities. Mmmm, maybe it is like real life. Defendant lawyers lose the case and the trial judge, in an outburst of creativity, threatens to impose punitive damages on defendant if he doesn’t immediately apologize to the plaintiff. Forget that punitive damages were not pled or prayed for. Even Judge Judy would have second thoughts about doing this.

"Another case involves arbitration. A savvy, business oriented dominatrix sues the person she hired to create her website. The distinguished and unflappable Judge Dion Morrow sensibly rules that the contract is too vague to be enforceable. The losing attorney utters a profanity and storms out of the office. Well, I guess that’s real. No contempt powers for arbitrators.

"During the post-mortem back at the law firm, senior partner Black offers valid insights into trial advocacy. He excoriates the rude attorney at the arbitration and then fires the defendant’s lawyers in the 'terrorist threat' lawsuit. Camera follows the out-of-work lawyers to the elevator which for them goes only one way.

"Why couldn't The Law Firm be uplifting like the one reality show I adore, 'Dancing with the Stars.' A television personality teams up with a professional dancer and competes with another similar team in a variety of dances that are judged by a trio of choreographers. Their votes are only advisory. Viewers call in and vote for the winner. The winner’s prize goes to charity. Yes, there are winners and losers, but only in a tongue in cheek way. The contestants do not slander or excoriate each other. They are working to develop a skill that requires hours of commitment, practice, facility, and grace. The pithy comments from the judges give the viewer some insight into the complexity and artistry of the enterprise. With the exception of Dancing with the Stars, I say, down with reality shows. They lack authenticity. Yours truly, Miss Anne Thrope"

I don't agree with all of Miss Anne's comments, but I did watch Dancing with the Stars, and was cha cha cha-ing all through the house. Despite my aversion to reality shows, I must acknowledge they are a part of our culture, and . . . O.K. I have this idea for a reality show. I call it "The Appointment."

A group of seasoned lawyers (that leaves out those rejected from "The Law Firm) wish to be appointed to a single opening on the trial bench. They are put through a series of grueling tests. First they have to fill out an application. This is problematic for a busy practitioner who will have to block out a chunk of time to complete this task, say maybe three or four months. Imagine being such a lawyer. It can be disheartening to dredge up cases from decades past and list opposing counsel, particularly the ones you defeated who threatened revenge no matter what. Groups of evaluators many of whom are anonymous, pour over your life as though you were an ex-union organizer applying for work at Wall Mart.

You drum up support from people who may have to appear before you in the event you are selected. One is your opponent in a hotly contested business case. He wants a continuance, but your client is unalterably opposed to it. Hundreds of questionnaires are sent to people who like you, people who hate you, people who don’t know you, and people who are your competitors also seeking to become the judge you want to be. And you receive questionnaires about your competitors. Do you cut a deal with them? A good or average review in exchange for a similar review from them? If you make such a deal how do you know they will live up to the bargain? Whatever you say about them, do you believe it? Is this ethical behavior for anyone let alone a judge? Should you even consider such disgraceful conduct? Who will know? But that is not the point or is it? .

This show has all the ingredients of a top selling reality show. The participants are made to open up and reveal their lives with all their insecurities, ambitions, fears, weaknesses and strengths. Only one will get the appointment. Who will it be? I thought this show would be a winner, but someone told me there is already one like it-- Survivor.