BigLaw on the Small Screen

BigLaw on the Small Screen

Law students, as a group, watch more television than any group I've ever encountered. Between us, one of my roommates and I must watch everything on T.V. (or, to be accurate, everything available on Hulu). Recently I've watched a few episodes of NBC's "Parenthood" now in its first season. I mention it here because it depicts an interesting and unusual (for mainstream television) view of lawyers. (I should point out that I never caught "The Deep End," the short-lived drama set in an L.A. firm.) Acknowledging that I'm not a lawyer yet, "Parenthood's" seems like a refreshingly real portrayal.

The show is about a family in the Bay Area: grandparents, their grown children, and their children's children, who vary in age from about five to about fifteen. One of the children, Julia, is a BigLaw M&A attorney, and the show consciously plays off of her career.

Episode seven shows Julia's niece shadowing Julia for a day as part of a school assignment. Julia talks about why she became a lawyer, citing a civil rights class at Stanford. Her niece expresses surprise that Julia does that kind of work, and Julia has to awkwardly explain that she doesn't. The experience causes Julia to rethink her career, and the fact that she's still at a firm making rich people richer. Her husband points out, however, that she loves taking apart companies and making new ones.

I like that the legal profession is depicted seriously, and not in some life-or-death, secrets-and-lies crime show. The aforementioned episode depicts the struggle between public interest goals and dreams on one hand, and true enjoyment of corporate legal work on the other. Julia feels that she is a sellout, but the fact is that she enjoys her work...and she is by far the most financially secure member of her family, which doesn't hurt. Like so many incoming law students, Julia probably thought she'd be the next great civil rights lawyer, but realized that was going to have to wait as she saw the debt racking up. And again, like so many, she got sucked in, and found it much harder to leave than she'd expected.

Julia also has a stay-at-home husband, which is unusual both on T.V. and in real life. The show does a good job of showing that Julia doesn't spend as much time at home with her husband and daughter as much as she'd like, and that her husband really makes her work schedule possible. Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) ranks firms by gender equality (http://www.betterlegalprofession.org/Norcal/female), among other things, and (to put it mildly) women are still not doing so well in BigLaw, particularly in the partnership ranks. A big part of that is probably attributable to the schedule, which requires either a spouse with a very flexible schedule or a lot of babysitting time when children are involved.

In episode nine, Julia's daughter breaks a vase and lies about it. The real fireworks come when Julia tries to talk to her daughter about lying only to be told that lying is okay because it's what Julia does at her job-the mother of Julia's daughter's friend Harmony had said that lawyers are liars. Julia tapes off the broken vase like a crime scene until her daughter confesses and agrees to clean up the mess. Julia's defense of lawyers is priceless, as she starts talking about the Declaration of Independence and its author, Thomas Jefferson: "Not only was he a founding father and our nation's third president, but he was a laywer. America was created by lawyers, so when Harmony's mom insults lawyers, she's really insulting America itself. Americans are honest people who believe that telling the truth is very important."

Most law students I know enter law school with some sense of higher purpose, and most have a strong sense of duty and ethics, yet, popular culture really does equate lawyers with lying. One thing we should do to Build a Better Legal Profession is to think about that reputation and see if we can't revise it, one lawyer at a time. In advocating for transparency and consistency in firm reporting, BBLP is making a push in the right direction.