Sacramento Law:

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How much do our region’s lawyers have in common with their Hollywood counterparts?

You hear the one about the fella who died, went to the pearly gates? St. Peter let him in. Sees a guy in a suit making a closing argument. Says, ‘Who’s that?’ St. Peter says, ‘Oh, that’s God. Thinks he’s Denny Crane.’ &emdash; William Shatner as Denny Crane, Boston Legal

Owing to America’s love affair with television courtroom dramas, from Ally McBeal to Law & Order, everyone’s an expert on the law and its practitioners&emdash;or thinks they are. But many of us have never consulted a lawyer or witnessed a real trial. For good or ill, our perceptions of attorneys are based largely on creations of the entertainment industry, the more tawdry and sensational the better.

How do local, real-life lawyers respond? Not guilty to the charge that they fit the stereotypes&emdash;including everything from the noble Perry Mason of the 1950s to today’s ruthless, high-priced defense attorney-turned-prosecutor Sebastian Stark (James Woods in Shark), who’ll break any rule to win. Nonetheless, many local lawyers agree that, inaccuracies and embellishments aside, there’s nothing better than a dysfunctional, sexually charged three-ring circus masquerading as a TV courtroom to teach the public how the legal system really works.

The American Bar Association takes a keen interest in how the media affect attitudes about the legal profession, and rightly so. Juries, after all, are made up of ordinary citizens, many of whom watch TV law shows and may harbor biases based on what they’ve seen. More than a few lawyers themselves, fighting the urge to throw things at the screen, can’t resist the draw of TV courtroom pyrotechnics (however unbelievable) or the freedom with which the writers of these shows craft commentaries on everything from racism to homosexuality.

I’m a junkie, confesses Kathryn Druliner, a Sacramento criminal defense lawyer. These TV shows give me ideas I never had before.

Druliner cites an episode from Boston Legal in which lawyer characters Denny Crane and Alan Shore are discussing the two Americas, red states and blue states, and how it behooves an attorney to argue his case to the America sitting before him in the jury box.

I got up and typed this, it was so fantastic, she says, adding that she then successfully applied the concept to one of her own cases in which she saw not a red state/blue state divide, but a male/female one: I already had the women (jurors). I realized I needed to persuade the men.

If lawyers themselves can learn legal strategies from TV, then might not we, the viewing public, stand to learn more? Yes, say local attorneys. But first it might help to disabuse ourselves of some of our notions about lawyers and legal machinations that we get while sitting in our La-Z-Boys stuffing our faces with potato chips, TV remotes in hand.

Objection: Inaccuracies Galore

Because of cable television’s Court TV, which covers real-life trials, and the televised O.J. Simpson trial&emdash;not to mention the plethora of legal talking heads employed by news programs&emdash;viewers are more sophisticated than ever before about the workings of the legal system. So fictional TV shows must be accurate to some extent, or else they’d get an earful. Rarely is a script approved without the expertise of either the show’s creator (David E. Kelley, producer of Ally McBeal, The Practice and Boston Legal is a former Boston lawyer) or an army of legal consultants. But&emdash;and this is a big but&emdash;in the name of entertainment, so much of what we see on TV would never happen in a real law firm or courtroom. Routinely, evidence is allowed that would never be allowed, questions are asked that would never be asked. And what real-life attorney could ever sleep with a co-worker or diss a judge the way they do on TV without serious consequences? Let’s examine a few more TV-fed myths:

Most legal maneuvering takes place in the courtroom. Real life couldn’t be further from the truth, especially in civil cases. I would bet less than 5 percent of civil cases go to trial, says Sacramento attorney John Moreno. The reasons: Criminal cases take priority, and litigants in a civil case often opt to settle out of court in order to save money and avoid risking a bad outcome. Even in criminal trials, the percentage of time lawyers spend in the courtroom is small compared to the time they spend poring over case files, taking depositions and doing all the other drudgery that would put TV viewers to sleep.

Cases can be wrapped up in an hour. Lawyers wish! For Roger Dreyer, a Sacramento civil trial lawyer, this is more like it: I just finished a case that was in litigation for five years.

All lawyers are sharks. Uh-uh, Dreyer protests. For entertainment value, it’s much easier to have a fat, obnoxious, nasty lawyer who fits a stereotype, he says. I guarantee there are people who hate me because I’m a very hard advocate for my clients. Does that make me a shark, a pit bull or a piranha? It doesn’t make me any of those things; it just makes me a lawyer who’s doing his job for his clients.

Cases are always sexy and exciting. Unless you’re my mom, who’s had the luck of being picked twice (to serve on a jury) for homicide cases, you’re going to hear a lot of arcane stuff, says Gregory Pingree, professor of law at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. Most of the time, jurors just want the damn thing to be over.

Lawyers are tough, cool and collected. A lot of guys play the tough card, says Sacramento personal-injury attorney R. Parker White, but you don’t see them freaking out at 2 in the morning.

Good lawyers almost always win their cases. You have to be willing to risk losing, White says. A good plaintiff’s lawyer, if they’re honest with you, will tell you they’ve lost a ton of cases. When you’re out there gunning, you get shot out.

Prosecutors are heroes; defense attorneys are villains. Viewers might get this idea if they watch too much Law & Order, which presents cases from the prosecution’s point of view. Kresta Daly, a local criminal defense attorney, argues, Defense lawyers for the most part are really ethical, upstanding people who really care about their clients. They’re not into all these shenanigans you see on TV, and they’re not in it to get rich. They really do believe in the system. We don’t tamper with evidence, and we don’t ask people to lie.

Lawyers are greedy. If it’s money they’re after, there are a million easier ways to get it. Says Dreyer, You can’t do this for the money, because you’ve really got to believe in it and have a high level of responsibility for your client.

Daly adds, There’s a perception that we all live in mansions and drive Maseratis. Our lives are far less glamorous and exciting. Most of us work a lot, we don’t have big, fancy houses and we don’t drive fancy sports cars or spend our evenings in bars with supermodels. I drive a Nissan Xterra.

The Real Deal

As unbelievable as most TV law shows are, almost all contain nuggets of truth. By anyone’s standards, Boston Legal is downright nutty, yet some local lawyers say it’s precisely this nuttiness that hits closest to home.

Sacramento personal-injury lawyer and author John Poswall says, What [characters Denny Crane and Alan Shore] do so effectively, and what I’ve tried to do as a lawyer, is entertain the jury. Real trials for the most part can be extremely boring, and most lawyers are boring. But because of television, jurors are always looking for that ‘gotcha’ moment. They expect the cross examination is going to be devastating, or a lawyer is going to pull something out of a bag of tricks. In one of my trials, I actually used a bag that said ‘Trick or Treat.’

Dreyer agrees that to win over a jury, lawyers must see themselves as actors. The best lawyers, he says, are the creative lawyers, the ones who are able to get around problems and see how far they can go. You know how lawyers are never supposed to ask a question that they don’t know the answer to? Well, I’ve done it.

Other lawyers applaud TV shows for the way they portray ethical conundrums in a self-governing profession bound by strict codes of behavior.

If I could use only one show to teach ethics, I would use ‘The Practice,’ says Pingree, the law professor. Every show is about a different ethical dilemma, such as the protection of client confidentiality.

 

TV Shows: Helpful or Harmful?

Most local lawyers we interviewed see the impact of fictional legal dramas on the integrity of the legal system as both positive and negative. On the plus side, It’s good because it generates an interest in the law, and it’s good for citizens to be interested in their legal rights, says Lawrence C. Levine, professor of law at McGeorge.

Most often cited as a negative is CSI and its spinoffs, which seem to have conditioned jurors to expect that prosecutors will prove their cases by relying on physical and forensic evidence alone. In reality, forensic evidence isn’t always available or necessary, and witness testimony can be vital in filling the holes, lawyers say.

Lawyer stereotypes can be harmful, too, and not just the roguish ones. Says Poswall, Jurors look at [heroic attorneys] as the level of lawyering, so they expect a higher caliber than perhaps they see in the courtroom.
At least one local attorney thinks real TV lawyers cause more damage than the fictional ones.

Unfortunately, says Druliner, too much of the public has gotten their ideas from the O.J. trial and the talking heads. (CNN legal commentator) Nancy Grace is a joke; she’s dangerous. How many unwashed masses are watching thinking she knows what she’s talking about? She’s not in the courtroom, hasn’t read the 10,000 pages of police reports. How can she get on TV and offer these slam-dunk opinions?

Armchair Education

What can we learn from fictional TV law shows? Plenty, say local attorneys. So listen up&emdash;class is in session.

We can demystify the legal process for ourselves. “These shows are great in that they expose people to the system. At least it creates a dialogue,” says Roger Dreyer, a Sacramento civil trial lawyer.

We can become more aware of current issues. Local criminal defense attorney Kresta Daly says, ‘Law & Order’ deals with some pretty interesting social issues at times&emdash;homelessness, anti-Semitism, alternative lifestyles. They tend to be reasonably sensitive and somewhat fair, in my opinion.

Before we complain about the system, we need to look in the mirror. Every one of these programs shows that arguments are being addressed to a jury, says Sacramento personal-injury lawyer and author John Poswall. It’s ordinary citizens who are making these decisions. We criticize the system, but the system is us.

We can learn about real-life cases. Many shows are ripped straight from today’s headlines. I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts there’ll be an episode soon on somebody drinking water in a radio contest, says Lawrence C. Levine, professor of law at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, referring to the death earlier this year of a local woman who participated in a radio-station contest to see who could drink the most water without going to the bathroom. (Her family has filed a lawsuit against the station’s parent company.)

We witness lawyers as the driving forces of social change.  Attorneys are involved in a dynamic, exciting profession that involves a lot of political power, says Gregory Pingree, professor of law at McGeorge. Attorneys are pretty much the political infrastructure of society. It’s a great way to have a social impact.
We see the power of good storytelling. Each case is a story about which there is a conflict, Pingree says.

As (U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin) Scalia once said, at a trial the full truth almost never comes out in perfect detail. What comes out at a trial is a compromised but fair version of the truth&emdash;like taking two photos of the same thing and overlaying them to get an average of the two. Trials are not so much about the truth as they are about who’s better at telling a story and persuading a group of people.

We get assurance that lawyers are driven (which is good if you ever need one). I think what we can take from these legal shows is that lawyers are really trying their best to represent their clients, says personal-injury lawyer R. Parker White. Lawyers get a bad rap for being jerks and creeps&emdash;and there are those in our profession, but it’s a miniscule percentage&emdash;but most of us are working our butts off trying to do our best.&emdash;Dayna Dunteman

Our Favorite Law Shows

>> You can’t channel-surf these days without crashing into a glut of fictional TV law shows. Here’s a look at a few we love, past and present.

Law & Order&emdash;Set in the Big Apple, Dick Wolf’s Emmy Award-winning NBC drama has been going like gangbusters since its debut in 1990, spawning successful spinoffs Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. While the cast has changed, the structure is basically the same every time: The first half of the show follows the police investigation and arrest, while the second half focuses on the case from the New York City district attorney’s office’s point of view. Short on character but long on (twisted) plot, the show often borrows from the headlines.

Ally McBeal&emdash;
This Emmy Award-winning comedy (1997–2002) from producer David E. Kelley said less about the legal profession and more about the title character’s emotional vulnerability and postage stamp-size miniskirts. John Denvir, professor of law at the University of San Francisco School of Law, writes on the university’s website, Ally seems all too resigned to the fact that she has entered a profession dedicated to greed, and quite comfortable arguing cases she doesn’t believe in. He concludes, Ally McBeal challenges us to consider how sane people can live the way lawyers do.

The Practice&emdash;Dylan McDermott played Bobby Donnel in David E. Kelley’s portrayal of a small Boston law firm that tackled hot-button issues with vigor. The show, which won numerous awards, ran from 1997 to 2004.

Boston Legal&emdash;David E. Kelley strikes again with the antics of the attorneys at Crane Poole & Schmidt, among them the clownish Denny Crane played by William Shatner. Real-life attorneys seem to love this one for its glib repartee and outside-the-box strategies.

Shark&emdash;James Woods stars as the swaggering Sebastian Stark, former defense attorney who brings his bite-’em-and-leave-’em-bleeding tactics to the Los Angeles district attorney’s high-profile crime unit Thursday evenings on CBS.

L.A. Law&emdash;Nabbing 15 Emmys throughout its run from 1986 to 1994, this drama created by Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue) and Terry Louise Fisher (a former deputy district attorney who also produced Cagney & Lacey) chronicled the personal and professional lives of attorneys, associates and staff in the large Los Angeles law firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak.

Perry Mason&emdash;This 1950s and ‘60s classic stirred hearts with the depiction of Raymond Burr as a lawyer who defended clients against impossible odds and won every time, often because of a dramatic confession from someone in the courtroom. (I did it! And I’m glad I did!)

Matlock&emdash;In shades of Perry Mason, Andy Griffith, playing aw-shucks attorney Ben Matlock, represented all manner of murder defendants, not one of whom was ever found guilty. The show ran from 1986 to 1995.

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