Our legal correspondent lists the ways TV sets up new attorneys for crushing disappointment.
Until this past fall, I practiced law, full-time, at a large international firm. My life consequently was much worse than it is now. I mean: I barely had time for TV. Sometimes, as I'd sit at the office late at night, missing yet another Real Housewives reunion special, I'd question why I ever became an attorney in the first place. Then I'd think: Oh, yeah -- television.
The thing is, television lied to me. It's lied to all of us. As long as television has been around, it's been promoting the myth that a career in law, like a career in medicine, is exciting, glamorous -- sexy, even. To be clear: it's none of those things. On the contrary, practicing law, in my experience, is one of the most deeply unsexy things one can do as a career, right up there with telemarketing, working at Dress Barn, and selling motorized scooters. I'm not saying there's not value in being an attorney (although I'm not not saying that, either), but chances are, if you're a lawyer, your life looks nothing like what TV told you it would look like.
Think of all the shows in which lawyers have appeared as happy, attractive, and vital individuals, with plenty of time for meals and sex and witty banter: Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, The Practice, LA Law, Harry's Law, Night Court. But we don't have all day, so let's just take a look at five egregious examples, ranked in order of how misleading they are, of how TV has misrepresented what it's like to be a lawyer.
1. Law & Order SVU
Premise: The District Attorney's office prosecutes the cases brought in by the dedicated detectives who investigate sexually-based, vicious felonies. Chung chung!
Why it's unrealistic: Attorneys, by and large, do not look like the ladies of the fictional DA's office on this show. So, okay, maybe Alex Cabot (Stephanie March) and Casey Novak (Diane Neal) aren't walking the runways of Paris, but they could definitely do catalog.
Why it's realistic: Sonya Paxton, the drunk ADA portrayed by Christine Lahti, seems like she could happen. Fact: alcoholism is actually a big problem among lawyers. See what I'm saying about it not being a sexy career, you guys?
Bottom line: If you want to work as a prosecutor in New York, please send a headshot and your modeling portfolio to the DA's office, and you might just have a shot.
Premise: Crusading U.S. Attorney David Rosen (Josh Malina) gets on the wrong side of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), Fixer of Scandals, Destroyer of Men.
Why it's unrealistic: Rosen, when he's not uncovering huge, game-changing vote-rigging scandals, seems to have plenty of time to sleep with attractive women and exchange long-winded and unprofessional banter with his young, pretty assistant in his tastefully appointed office. In real life, though, U.S. Attorneys are super-busy, especially U.S. Attorneys for the District of Columbia, who are responsible for prosecuting local criminal cases in DC as well as representing the U.S. in civil law cases. In real life, Rosen would spend most of his time in the hallway of the DC Superior Court, eating a meatball sub standing up while waiting to argue a DUI case.
Why it's realistic: David Rosen's life gets ruined by someone with a cooler job than his.
Bottom line: Don't eff with Olivia Pope.
Premise: A lawyer who's looking for an associate hires a brilliant college dropout with NO LAW DEGREE for the job.
Why it's unrealistic: This wouldn't happen even in California, where the rules about who can become a lawyer are more flexible than Gumby. It's fun to think that, to thrive as an attorney, all you need are street smarts, a la Dodger from Oliver & Company, as voiced (unforgettably!) by Billy Joel. Turns out, the American Bar Association thinks differently, no matter how many sausage links you can snag in your mouth.
Why it's realistic: Ignoring the ethics, regulations, and bylaws involved, you don't actually need a law degree to practice law. A monkey could do this stuff, folks.
Bottom line: But yeah, go ahead and go to law school before trying to seek employment at a law firm, just to be on the safe side.
4. The Deep End
Premise: A number of model-esque law-school graduates start work at a prestigious L.A. law firm and must deal with cases that challenge their personal ethics.
Why it's unrealistic: For one thing, "prestigious" law firms don't tend to have sexy rooftop bars and pools, and the lawyers who work at such firms don't get off at five for cocktail hour. Second, lawyers, even in Los Angeles, do not wear stilettos, bandage skirts, and boob-popping tops to work. Third, and I hate to dash the hopes of wannabe attorneys here, but Billy Zane will not be your boss. Fourth, first-year litigation associates don't get to have client contact, let alone contact with celebrities and tycoons and other important rich people.
Why it's realistic: Creator David Hemingson supposedly based the series on his own experiences as a lawyer, although I question whether Hemingson actually was an attorney or just had a really vivid sex dream that took place in a law firm and got confused.
Bottom line: Don't expect to be playfully pushed into the (non-existent) pool on the first day of work at your law firm. Also, please don't wear a v-neck tee shirt with an open blazer over it to work. Where do you think you are, Samantha Jones's PR firm?
5. Fairly Legal
Premise: Our "quirky" heroine, Kate Reed (Sarah Shahi), quits her job as a litigator and becomes a mediator at the San Francisco law firm started by her late father.
Why it's unrealistic: First thing: law firms don't tend to employ mediators. That would sort of, you know, defeat the purpose of having a law firm. Second thing: it's really hard to become a mediator, and it takes years, if not decades. One does not simply quit one's job as an attorney and decide to become a mediator. Third thing: in the show, Reed's job consists of wearing cute clothes, going for coffee and lunch, and then meeting with harried but attractive clients, all of whom she assures she'll be able to bring positive results. Setting aside the fact that as a rule, mediators don't guarantee anyone anything, an actual mediator would be thirty years older, a hell of a lot poorer, and would not be mediating disputes involving feuding boy bands.
Why it's realistic: It's not.
Bottom line: Free advice: if you run a litigation firm, don't employ a mediator who will convince parties not to litigate. You're welcome.
So, still want to be a lawyer? Go for it! Just don't expect to find attractive coworkers, pools, drinks, Billy Zane, cute mediators, a relaxed attitude about your lack of law degree, stilettos, or free time. Have fun!