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Thursday, January 19, 2012

How the Old Twin Stand-In Stunt Plays Out In Real Life

Writers love to show lawyers using twins to trick witnesses into false identifications. The plotline will have the witness asked, “Can you show me the man who attacked you?” The witness points to the person at the defense table. The defense lawyer will say, “Your honor, I move to dismiss. The witness has just identified the defendant’s twin brother.” Gasps arise. Gavel pounding. “Case dismissed.” The victim walks away sheepishly, and the defense lawyer gets slaps on the back for his cleverness.

Back to the real world. A lawyer tried a similar stunt recently, with quite different consequences. She had her client’s twin brother appear at a preliminary hearing instead of her client. The witness identified the twin. Case dismissed? Nope.

The prosecutors are moving to have her removed from the case, and the judge is talking about having her held in contempt of court. The prosecutor is also going to report her to the Bar for making misrepresentations to the court.

When she was caught (the arresting officer recognized the real perp hanging outside the courtroom) she denied she was trying to get the witness to identify the wrong person. So what was all that about? I’m betting that wasn't quite true. She probably saw some stupid TV show where a lawyer pulled a similar stunt.

If stunts like that worked in real life, no twin would ever end up in jail. The truth is simpler. Lawyers aren’t allowed to misrepresent anything to a judge or jury. That includes the identity of their client. If they do, they might end up in jail for a few days, or worse, lose their license to practice law.

Can we all agree to stop using the twin stand-in as a plotline now? On behalf of the 1.1 million lawyers who might read your book or watch your show, I thank you.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Good Wife Tackles Political Discrimination

In the episode “Parenting Made Easy,” The Good Wife represents a professor who claims she was fired due to discrimination based upon her political beliefs. Whether or not such a claim would exist in the real world depends on whether the school is public or private.

There’s a real-life case going on right now about this very issue, so the show was timely. In this real case, a professor claims the University of Iowa College of Law (a state-run institution) refused to hire her because she’s a Republican, and cites the ratio of only 1 out of 50 professors at the school is Republican. She’s suing under 42 USC Section 1983, claiming her constitutional right of free speech was violated.

Going back to The Good Wife, the first theory the lawyers raised was that the professor was discriminated against due to sexual harassment. That claim kind of fell by the wayside (it was just shoulder-rubbing, so they were probably right to drop that one quickly).

Then they changed their theory to say it was because of her political and religious views on homosexuality. They said it was a civil rights violation. The person who fired her said he believed what she said was hate speech. Let’s forget a moment that they would have to amend their pleadings and give the other side a chance to switch gears as well. They actually did a good job handling this sticky issue by having it be an arbitration, where the rules are much more loose and informal.

The writers didn’t say whether the college was a private one. If it was private, then she has no civil rights and she can absolutely be fired for her political beliefs. They would have had to allege religious discrimination – that she was fired because of her religious beliefs, not for her conservatism or specific political views. So the plotline bothered me because political discrimination is mostly not illegal. I had to make the leap and assume it was a public institution. Personally, I think the religious discrimination angle would have been more interesting plot-wise.

The case result turned on opposing counsel stealing attorney-client communications out of Alicia’s purse, which was just dumb in my opinion. The lawyer would have been disbarred had Alicia complained, so it was a silly way to have him come up with the evidence. They had to show that he is unethical for plot purposes, and this was certainly unethical, but I don’t see Alicia letting him get away with it. It would have been much better had they shown him hiring a hacker to get the client’s personal emails.

Overall, I thought they handled the political discrimination issue pretty well. I would have liked them to say it was because the school was state-run that they could claim this, but I can see why the writers didn’t bother. As usual, The Good Wife’s writers handled a legal issue in a way that even a lawyer can enjoy watching.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Closer and Attorney as Hobbyist

Guess what folks? Being a lawyer is my job, not my hobby. If I didn’t make money doing it, I could be spending time with the kids or writing a novel. So it really, really ticks me off when people imply or flat-out say that lawyers should work for free. It especially ticks me off when it happens on one of my favorite shows.

It’s been a running plot line in The Closer this season that our heroine, Brenda, is being sued. First, her hubby ponied up the money secretly because the City wouldn’t pay to defend her. When she found out, she was understandably upset. Especially since the city should have been defending her on its own dime.

The last few episodes had her complaining about the attorney’s fees. She even said that her attorney made his living off other people’s misery – as if that wasn’t what cops do. So do doctors, funeral directors, and repo guys. You don’t hear anyone saying they shouldn’t be paid.

Why is it that writers (and a shocking number of wanna-be clients) think lawyers work for free? I really don’t get it.

Then Chief Pope gets all threatening on the lawyer. He says that Brenda will just have to find another lawyer, and it’s that lawyer who will soak up all the publicity the case will generate. Gee, thanks. Pay me in publicity, because that will pay my mortgage. The lawyer should have dumped her, but instead he – you guessed it – agreed to work for free.

So what thanks does he get when he settles her case with a dismissal in the next episode? She hates his guts. Okay, so he had a legal duty to consult with her on any settlement. Somehow, TV almost never gets this right. But this was a settlement the city cut with the plaintiffs, essentially behind her back, and she didn’t even need to sign. I’m not really sure he would have had anything to do with it in real life. They would have more likely cut the deal behind the attorney’s back and dropped Brenda from the suit without consulting him.

How much publicity did he get out of a quiet settlement where his client has zero liability? Nada. So much for getting paid in publicity. I’m sure we’ll hear more about how awful this lawyer is, working for free and getting his client out of a nasty lawsuit. WTH, guys?

Here’s how they could have fixed this plotline to make it better. Have the lawyer go after the city to force it to pay her fees, as it should. Then have him fight the city’s settlement that names Brenda by name as a bad guy. He should make them take that part out, and if he puts up a fight they probably will. The plaintiffs get nothing out of putting Brenda’s name on this, so the only one who gains is Pope, who gets to blame her. Brenda and the lawyer work together as a team, as they should, instead of at cross-purposes.

There’s nothing wrong with getting paid for work done, and lots wrong with advocating a system where the people who make sure we have civil rights, defend us from lawsuits, keep corporations from selling dangerous products and make sure we’re paid for our work are expected to do it for free (presumably at night after their paying jobs flipping burgers).

Attention all writers: being a lawyer is a job. Lawyers get paid, like everyone else who works. We use some of that money to buy books, TVs and movie tickets. Stop writing about lawyers who work for free, and stop vilifying lawyers who dare to be paid for their services.