Usually the legal blogosphere goes all derpy whenever anything involving law or lawyers is on TV. But, there hasn’t been too much noise about John Grisham’s beloved The Firm making a comeback as a television series. Perhaps the legal community is just suffering from some well deserved doubt about Hollywood’s ability to make the transition: If we pretend the new series doesn’t exist, then it can’t ruin our memories of the original. Call it The Phantom Menace Protocol.
Fortunately, the show has been quite good. It’s difficult to judge the overall story direction since we’re still so early in the series, the characters and the week-to-week stories have been engaging. Most importantly though, the dialog actually sounds like real lawyers, citing real legal principles in a way that will induce more golf claps than TV stabbings from the lawyer audience. And it should, there’s several people with legal backgrounds involved in the writing and production.
If you’re not watching the show, you really missed out last week (January 26, Episode 105). The defendant of the week was Judd Grafton, a recent law school graduate unable to find a job after graduation. Rather than moving to Nebraska to join the lucrative cow law market, he creates an underground casino.
The unemployed lawyer story could have been written off as just a funny choice, but in explaining his situation, Judd says to Mitch McDeere that there are only law jobs for half of recent grads. Yeah, that statistic is a little too precise to be an accident. Someone at NBC knows what’s going on.
To get to the bottom of this, our crack investigative team got to work. You know our fedora with the press placard, and the night vision goggles? We didn’t get to use any of that! Instead, BL1Y got on the phone with executive producer Lukas Reiter and writer Jonathan Shapiro.
Fun fact: Reiter worked on Law and Order at the same time as Bitter Lawyer creator Rick Eid.
Less fun, but way more awesome fact: Shapiro founded the Public Counsel Emergency Fund for Torture Victims.
BL1Y: The law school employment situation is a pretty esoteric issue. Why go with that for Judd’s back story?
Reiter: We have Mitch McDeere, and part of his journey coming out of law school was of course all the great stuff John Grisham wrote involving his recruiting process and how he came to join Bendini, Lambert and Locke, and there was certainly an awareness and some discussion among the writers and Jonathan and I that circumstances have changed for many law school graduates today so we thought that we would touch on that in one of our stories.
BL1Y: Was there any particular media coverage about law school employment that contributed to that decision?
Shapiro: I’m an adjunct law professor at USC, so I’ve been teaching for about eight years, and I just noticed that the last class I had, last year, it was really the first time that, thirty, forty percent of the students had jobs, the others didn’t. When I went to law school, I graduated in ’90, it was full employment, and [now] it’s not. Their experience in law school and their fears about what the future holds is such a fundamentally different experience than what the main character in The Firm had. It would have been a lie to have a character not reflect the reality.
BL1Y: There’s been a lot of controversy lately about how law schools report employment data. Judd has an income and does a lot of work, so, when the law school or NALP collects that data, would Judd be listed as employed or unemployed?
Reiter: I don’t know that running an illegal casino would count in the way that they collect those statistics.
BL1Y: They count self employment.
Shapiro: They do. The ABA and other bar associations – I read a report, I can’t recall if it was the New York Times or the ABA Journal, there’s a question to whether they’re cooking the books a little because their employment records don’t necessarily distinguish people who have jobs, like Judd, versus people who have law jobs. If you have one hundred percent employment of law school graduates, but only forty percent of them can find a job that requires that they have a law degree that’s a problem, right?
Law schools are not trade schools, except the controversy about for-profit schools, that charge people forty, fifty thousand dollars to get certain trades, and then they graduate into a job market where they can’t a job or they can’t find jobs that allow them to make the kind of income to pay back their debt. People would look at that and say that’s fraud.
Reiter: That being said, on the other side, I certainly believe a legal education regardless of your employment in a legal position, the benefits of what a legal education provides are well documented and certainly we’re good examples of the fact that that kind of education can help you get jobs outside the law as well. So, it’s an interesting question whether law schools are not fulfilling some promise by not providing law jobs. Really the goal could be seen as providing a legal education that could then be a launching point for any number of careers.
[Remember, those other careers include the lucrative and exciting world of underground casino management!]
BL1Y: Was there any specific reason why an underground casino was chosen, as opposed to any other illegal enterprise?
Reiter: I do think that it’s been fascinating to watch over the last however many years it is the increased interest among young people in poker and gambling. I hope it was interesting to people that we touched a bit on whether the work ethic among young people has changed, whether there’s a sense out there as some might suggest that hard work and a traditional partner track at a firm is not as appealing as it used to be to young people coming out of law school. So, we were just trying to touch on some of the things that we’re observing.
[In The Paper Chase TV series, Harvard Law students operate a back-room poker game and profit off the misfortunes of their fellow students. Maybe things haven't changed at all.]
BL1Y: Judd comes across as very intelligent and hard working, and other than his legal troubles it seems like he’d make a great employee. Is there any chance Mitch will send some work his way as perhaps a freelance paralegal?
Reiter: That’s not currently in our story plans.
BL1Y: So that didn’t turn out to be a networking opportunity for him?
Reiter: Not for Mitch’s firm, but I do think that by the end Mitch did develop a certain respect for Judd’s ability to read a legal situation.
Shapiro: Yeah, he must have been a pretty damn good law student. I think he’d make a pretty good lawyer if he had the chance.
BL1Y: Well, now he’s going to have some problems with character and fitness review.
Shapiro: He was acquitted.
BL1Y: Of the murder, not the gambling.
Shapiro: Oh, that’s true. We didn’t deal with those specific charges, so he may have some challenges ahead.
[Related: 140 Things You Can't Do With a Law Degree]