Solo & Small Firm

In The Know: Attorneys Fighting Reality for Reality Television

By Jeremy M. Evans

Have you ever wondered why attorneys and clientele do not play themselves in reality television shows?  Attorneys are taught to present their arguments with precision as a screen actor would when filming, memorizing their lines and improvising as needed.  Attorneys often have the most interesting clients, situations, and stories to tell.  Attorneys  are often funny, gregarious, and comfortable in front of large crowds and smaller groups.  Attorneys, it seems, would be the best casted in a role to play themselves. 

Law-based television series are nothing new: Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, Perry Mason, L.A. Law, Suits, Damages, Matlock, Boston Legal, Ally McBeal, and many more.  Law-based feature films are counted in the hundreds: The Lincoln Lawyer, A Few Good Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, My Cousin Vinny, The Verdict, Erin Brockovich, The Devil’s Advocate, The Firm, and much more.  Attorneys would seem to be suited for the occasion; pun intended.

This article will explore the top five reasons why attorneys to this point have not played themselves in a reality television show, let alone a major television show or motion picture. 

Confidentiality, Waivers, and Duty to Client

Historically, an esquire, another title for an attorney or lawyer was “a young nobleman who, in training for knighthood, acted as an attendant to a knight.”  In the 2017 movie Roman J. Israel, Esq., an actor asks Denzel Washington “What does esquire mean?”, he responds, “A title of dignity, slightly above gentleman, below knight.”  A great line, but what it means is that the attorney is supposed to service the client to the best of his abilities.  The client is the knight, the attorney is the attendant to the knight.  A show based on an attorney acting in real practice might take away from that precious relationship of putting the client first or maybe it could highlight it. 

Moreover, California Rule of Professional Conduct 3-100, “Confidential Information of a Client,” prevents an attorney from disclosing a client’s information.  And let us be honest, a show based on an attorney without his clients would be like eating two pieces of bread smashed together without anything in it, while a reality television show based on just the clients would be like all other unscripted reality television shows, the sandwich without the bread.  Both need each other to survive in life and storytelling.

Maybe the issue is that much of an attorney’s professional career is scripted unlike reality television.  Outlines and Power Points for litigation and deal point memos for transactional matters.  What makes an attorney great is his preparation—spontaneity only works with great preparation. 

Could the client and the opposing party waivers solve the problem?  California Rules of Professional Conduct 3-300 “Avoiding Interests Adverse to a Client,” 3-310 “Avoiding the Representation of Adverse Interests,” and 3-400 “Limiting Liability to Client” all cut against the proposition of what a waiver might cover.  It seems a scripted show or movie is more likely, but that is not reality television.  Scripted means control and less liability. 

Scheduling

Attorneys are busy people and although a reality television show might educate the public on what attorneys actually do and maybe curry some favor and favorable public opinion about the profession, where could a practicing attorney find the time?  How about their clients?  Folks might think they want fifteen minutes of fame, but having a camera follow you around is a full-time job.  It is a season full of fame, hours per day. 

Duty to Tribunal

California Rule of Professional Conduct 5-120 “Trial Publicity” provides:

“A member who is participating or has participated in the investigation or litigation of a matter shall not make an extrajudicial statement that a reasonable person would expect to be disseminated by means of public communication if the member knows or reasonably should know that it will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding in the matter.”

The person who finds a way to have an attorney comment on on-going litigation in a reality television show setting without being in violation of Rule 5-120 will be a very rich person.  Again, the current law-related content making process favors scripted television and motion pictures, and where real names are used, waivers are obtained, not to mention rights of publicity under California Civil Code Section 3344 and licenses for such authorized use(s). 

Duty to the Profession

California Rule of Professional Conduct 1-100 “Professional Conduct, in General” sets out the purpose of the rules regulating attorneys and their profession “to protect the public and to promote respect and confidence in the legal profession . . . [and for the] willful breach of any of these rules, the Board of Governors has the power to discipline members as provided by law.”  It seems illogical to have a practicing attorney being followed around by a camera to avoid all of the issues raised.  Furthermore, avoiding the attorney reality television show would seem to avoid attorney discipline and harm to the public’s view of the profession. 

Leverage

Arguably, the attorney would have an upper hand having the negotiating skills, but the party that represents themselves is the first party to make a mistake.  Assuming the attorney retains an attorney to represent him, what leverage does the attorney have?  First, the attorney would have to make sure all of the conflicts were cleared, including waivers and personal liability, before any right-minded producer would take on the project.  Second, per Monica Padilla, a friend and attorney colleague in Los Angeles, “these contracts for talent in reality television are presented “as-is” deals.”  Padilla appeared on the show Survivor right after law school and has first-hand experience.  This makes sense because A-List actors like Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts have leverage with the box office hits, while reality television participants are trying to catch their break.  Participants have the choice: sign the deal and get to play, or do not sign the deal and walk. 

It seems for now, for the attorney reality television show to work, it would need the personality on camera of the characters in My Cousin Vinny or The Lincoln Lawyer, but the ethics of Perry Mason, to be both successful and to not find themselves disciplined and/or worse disbarred.  Find the attorney and the producer willing to make that bet and you have yourself a television show.  Possibly worth millions.

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