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Saturday, January 30, 2010

White Collar Doesn’t Know Squat About Judges

White Collar is an enjoyable show about a con man (I’d say ex-con man, but he’s not really ex) who is conscripted by the FBI to uncover other con men and women. But their last show irked the heck out of me because it was about a judge gone bad.

The problem? Certainly not with the whole judge-gone-bad concept. Here in South Florida we have had enough judges tossed in prison to fill a wing.

No, my problem is that the unscrupulous judge was supposed to be a federal judge. And no, it’s not because I have any particular beliefs that federal judges are never corrupt. I’m sure there are some who are less than pristine (not any down here, of course, where the federal bench all have halos, so please don’t throw me in jail, Your Honor).

No, the problem was that the writers didn’t do their homework. The script called for a judge who did primarily probate. A federal judge who does primarily probate simply doesn’t exist. Probate is a state court matter. Federal judges are assigned criminal and civil matters. They don’t specialize unless they are in a special court such as bankruptcy, tax, or immigration. The judge in this show was also involved in mortgage foreclosures. Those are state court matters too.

Jurisdiction decides which court hears the case. A federal judge can’t hear state law matters, except under limited circumstances.

Could a probate or foreclosure occasionally land in the federal courts? Yes. If a federal law came up in the matter, or if the parties were from different states, then the federal court might have jurisdiction. But this plot depended on having the judge in a position to manipulate both probate and foreclosure matters on a regular basis. That’s not a federal judge.

I understand (I think) why the writers wanted the script to have a federal judge. The characters work for the FBI, so they figured they needed a federal judge for the FBI to get involved. But since mortgage fraud was involved, any banking fraud is within the FBI’s jurisdiction. They could have gotten the type of judge correct and not changed anything about the plot.

The only thing a state judge probably couldn’t have done for the plot was help a corrupt FBI agent with warrants. So maybe I have to forgive them, since they needed this in the story too. Or maybe not. The problem with this is that, let’s say there really is a Probate Division in some federal court. You wouldn’t go to the probate judge for a criminal warrant. You’d go to a criminal judge.

How could they have fixed this? Well, the judge didn’t need to issue any warrants in the show, so they didn’t really need that plotline. They needed the judge to do something for a bad-guy FBI agent (I won’t say what in case you haven’t seen it). So make her a state court judge who’s friends with the FBI agent. Or who’s being blackmailed (they actually sort of did this, but then why did the warrant issue come up at all?) to help the agent do dirty deeds. They didn’t need to make the plot laughable to lawyers.

I wonder how many viewers were turned off by such a major gaffe. It’s a new enough show that they can’t afford to lose viewers. I like the show overall, so I hope they do their research from now on.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why Damages Can Get Away With Murder

I watched the season premiere of Damages, and it violated one of my cardinal rules on writing about the law. The main character, Patty Hewes, had a meeting in her office with a women she knew was represented by another attorney in the same matter. Yet a lawyer can never meet with someone they know is represented without that other lawyer’s permission.

Why didn’t I throw a shoe at the TV or write the show off completely? Here’s why the Damages writers can get away with (legal writing) murder.

1. Glenn Close. Okay, this has nothing to do with the writing. But c’mon. They have Glenn Close. She’s always worth watching.

2. We know from prior episodes that Patty Hewes has no ethics. We know she tried to have an associate murdered. When we see her breaking the rules, we’re not surprised.

3. We also know from prior episodes that she will do anything to win. Her firm has been well-written. Her character has been written to slowly build up to an expectation that she has no boundaries at all. The writers started her looking like a heroine, and have chipped away at that veneer over time.

4. We’ve seen her suffer the consequences of her bad behavior. She’s been the subject of criminal investigations and attempted murder because she breaks the rules. We know that she knows she’s breaking the rules.

5. Instead of focusing on the legal maneuvering, the writers mostly focus on Patty’s dastardly plots, and the attempts being made to thwart her. It’s not a courtroom procedure show. They don’t try to sell us that we’re getting an inside peek on how things work in the courthouse.

In short, the writers didn’t break their pact with the viewers to make the story believable. They’ve done their homework. They get the legal stuff (mostly) right. When they have a character break the rules, we know that they did it on purpose, and not just because they didn’t bother to research. I’m willing to watch a show about an evil lawyer we’ve grown to love as long as the writers prove to me I’m safe in their hands.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Deep End Goes Off The Deep End, Legally Speaking

I watched the latest new legal drama, The Deep End, with the same trepidation that always precedes watching any legal show. I expect liberties to be taken. I understand the need to speed up the action for dramatic purposes. So I didn't expect much. But they have the luscious Billy Zane, so I had to watch.

On the upside, the settings were spot on. They got the big firm atmosphere down. And the way first years are treated at a big law firm wasn't far off from what I hear (having started at a midsize firm myself). The love/hate relationship lawyers have with legal practice was right. The characters were fun and likable. The emphasis on the bottom line at all costs was not contrary to what I know of some big firms.

The beginning wasn't bad, and I began to relax. Then they started doing things that really get my hackles up. Stuff so wrong, that so would never happen, that it took me right out of the story. Here's what they did, and how they could have fixed it easily.

Never, ever, have a lawyer work against their client. This irks me about as much as showing a lawyer switching sides midstream. One show lost me permanently with that big of a clunker. The big plot line in the pilot was a first year handling a pro bono case who was instructed by the big kahuna partner to work against his client. Why not have someone outside the firm pressure the kid? Or have the firm pressure him to drop the case because it's too expensive? If a lawyer works against the interest of the client, he will lose his license.

The lawyer can't meet with the judge alone. So the kid goes to the judge with a case he found and convinces the judge to enter an order reversing the case. Huh? Ex parte with the judge? Where was opposing counsel? Where was the court reporter? The writers weren't trying to save money by not casting opposing counsel - he shows up later. How hard would it have been to write the scene with opposing counsel present? It was a huge groaner that should never have happened.

Don't call an informal meeting a deposition. The lawyer says he's going to take a child's deposition. Number one, the child would probably have a guardian ad litem - someone the court appointed to represent his best interests. Number two, there would be a court reporter and the lawyer would be asking questions of the child. Number three, the child was six, so good luck deposing him. And where was opposing counsel? Doi. A real forehead-smacking moment. The lawyer probably could convince his client, the mom, to let him meet with the child. So why the heck did the writers call it a deposition? Using terminology incorrectly shows that the writer doesn't care enough to get it right.

The lawyer can't meet with the opposing party without opposing counsel's permission. So when grandma went to the big kahuna partner and told him he needed to get the firm to tank the case or she'd make sure the firm lost the business of all the companies on whose boards she served, the partner should have politely told the receptionist he couldn't meet with her. The conversation couldn't have taken place. If the conversation is key, why not have her approach him at a public event? Or have her come with her lawyer to meet him and make the threat? It was ridiculous.

Will I watch again? I really don't know. I usually give shows a second chance. First shows are tough, since you have to do all the character building. But, c'mon. Is it that hard to take the time to write the pilot so lawyers don't throw their remotes at the screen. I know one lawyer couple who are fellow TV watchers who said they will never watch again. I'll probably watch just to look at Billy Zane again. But a few more clunkers and I'll be gone too.

Get a legal consultant guys, before the 1.1 million lawyers in the country, many of whom would love to watch a good legal drama, write you off for good.