Alternative Careers for Lawyers: How real is it?

My pile of “to read” material is overwhelming, but somehow I managed to read this article in the June issue of the ABA Journal about lawyers who write for television and film. I was interested in the article for two reasons. One, I am a law and popular culture fan — that is, I squander some academic credentials on writing about law and popular culture (trial films and the like) not only because I am addicted to them (Michael Clayton anyone? I loved it!) but because I do think the stories they tell and the manner in which they tell them constitute a popular legal consciousness that is part and parcel of the law (what it is, how it functions, why it changes, both on the books and in action). I was also interested in the article because when I counsel students about career choices, I like discussing alternative careers. With lawyer satisfaction low (at least that is what the media tells us, but see this article by my colleague Michael Rustad, and my comment about it here) lawyers-to-be should think hard about how to structure their career in terms of what they like about law and lawyering. Being a writer for television or film is potentially a dream of a career for many, but it is more and more common as the law-genre has blossomed. Remember LA Law? From that television drama (and the Perry Mason before it, long before it), law tv has exploded and the explosion keeps on burning (Law and Order, the Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal…). There are new variants in the crime drama genre – CSI, the Closer… just too many to list here. I am sure readers have their favorites and the ones they most despise. For me, the ones I tend to enjoy are the ones that are “smart” — that is, ones that explore contemporary legal issues and get the law right, although in a streamlined fashion and without much of the important details that keep lawyers in business litigating. (I count West Wing as one of my favorites for a law drama, albeit not a trial drama, that gets the legislative process fairly on and, when discussing legal issues regarding case law, tends to treat them with an element of sophistication.) The ones I most dislike are the shows that are more about the social drama of a law firm (Ally McBeal stands out on this front, although it had some good episodes, and the Practice devolved into this kind of show, unfortunately) or that are too heavy on the cops and investigators and spend less time on the legal restraints on those actors.

It seems clear to me that I can’t just suggest to my students “go get a writing job for Hollywood” even to those who had journalism careers before coming to law school. But it also seems clear to me that the law-writing field is wide open and the market is hot for it. Novels and non-fiction, essays and magazine or newspaper articles, blogs or on-line journals (Slate.com, for example) are all reasonable avenues to try — even before graduating from law school. There must be examples of well-trod blogs and their authors turning writer for the visual media for real pay. And this article from the ABA Journal is evidence that it can be done, even by the relatively young law student. It is also evidence of the need for the lawyers to help the producers and directors manage complex legal themes for diverse audiences — to keep the law meaningful, so to speak, for those who are only exposed to it through television and film. Although not a career in public service, it does seem (to this fan, at least) a worthwhile endeavor. In other words, “smart tv” should not be an oxymoron.

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7 Responses

  1. Jeff Lipshaw says:

    You’ve stirred up memories of some of the best and worst lawyer dramas (theater, TV, movie) of all time. I think Steve Lubet had a post on this a year or two ago.

    I don’t if “law tv” has exploded, although it would be easy enough to look at each season’s offerings since the 1950s and count them up. But the good versus bad has existed for a long time. On the good side, there was a series called “The Defenders” with E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed back in the late 1950s or early 1960s that presaged “Law and Order” in not having the protagonists always win. Also, there was a show called “Arrest and Trial” that used the same “half cop, half lawyer” approach, again, as I recall in a fairly realistic way.

    On the bad side, there was a show called “Kaz” with Ron Leibman that ran in 1978-79 when I was a third year law student that I used to have running while I was doing whatever passed for studying that year. It was mercifully cancelled after 23 episodes.

  2. Matt says:

    Let me add a more skeptical voice to this claim in particular:

    “it also seems clear to me that the law-writing field is wide open and the market is hot for it. Novels and non-fiction, essays and magazine or newspaper articles, blogs or on-line journals (Slate.com, for example) are all reasonable avenues to try.”

    One of my best friends, now a modestly successful novelist, worked for many years at a literary agent’s office mostly as, as he put it, the “rejections department”. One of his jobs was to write rejection letters to those in the slush pile. He said the most common sort of thing they got was stuff written by lawyers who were bored with the law and all wanted to be the next Michael Critton, but that the stuff was almost all uniformly bad. This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t try, of course, but only to remind people that the chances of becoming even a very modestly successful writer of fiction are extremely low and that in fact very few people are cut out for it. For most people it takes quite a bit of training and long and painful feed-back to become modestly good. Most lawyers would be vastly better served to focus on their legal work or something else that has some real probability of success.

  3. Struggling in the trenches says:

    If the ABA would grow a pair and mimic the control of the AMA, then lawyers could actually practice law and not resort to other sources of income.

    But no one wants to hear about this, particularly law profs, so I imagine this comment will be deleted within minutes of its posting.

    *Yeah*You*, Legal Academia, to be part of the problem!

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    Tha ABA journal shows it can be done because of selection bias — it’s been done, ergo there’s an article. It’s not useful for estimating how likely it is to be done.

    How many major league baseball baseball players are there? A few hundred. Would anyone suggest that MLB is a realistic career move? It’s obviously a long shot. Now compare that to the number of opportunities for lawyers working in movies, TV or as novelists. Between the two, I think you’re better off polishing your slugging and fielding skills.

    This is a good example of “Hollywood Economics” at work (see book of the same name by Arthur De Vany (Routledge 2004)). Hits are salient, so people think they’re much more likely to occur. In actuality, the statistical distribution of hits doesn’t even have a standard deviation; hits are “wildly unlikely”. BTW, Part III of De Vany’s book is entitled “Judges, Lawyers and the Movies” — but it’s more about antitrust than art.

    There are many other alternative careers for lawyers, including in business, management, journalism, NGO activism, etc. I question, though, why law students need guidance on alternative careers, as distinguished from advice on alternative venues for practicing law (e.g. outside big firms). Either he or she should have entered school planning to be a lawyer or with an alternative career (e.g. in business) already in mind, or probably should drop out before getting in too deep. Moreover, your utility as a consultant on a TV show is almost nil if you don’t have experience as a trial lawyer, prosecutor, etc. Seems like better policy is to encourage law students to spend at least a few years enjoying the career to which they’ve already made a substantial commitment, and learning something about its realities.

  5. Jason W. says:

    Just to pile on, if you thought getting into Yale was hard:

    Warner Brothers has a fellowship for aspiring television writers. It’s unpaid, and it’s really just a one-evening-per-week program that’s intended to get these “fellows” to meet people, get advice, etc. It’s not even really a full-fledged program. Doesn’t really sound all that awesome. But for those six slots, there are 1000 applicants. 1000! (That’s 0.6%, for the mathematically disinclined.)

  6. Chrissy says:

    Right now, I am trying to decide which route to take. While researching, I came upon this site. I am hoping that I can get very good advice from you and whoever else would like to help.
    I have high interest in becoming an attorney as well as becoming a Journalist/reporter. I know for a fact that I can obtain any degree in order to attend law school. Both require superior research and writing skills, critical thinking, and knowledge of government and the legal system. I figured Journalism/psychology would be great!

    I have very high expectations of my future. I realize that you basically have one shot at your degree. Face it, who wants to spend 6 years of their life preparing for something that they will have absolutely no interest in doing when finished? So, I want to make sure I have options and that I choose wisely.

    My idea: Major in journalism, Minor in Psychology and take a few law courses to prepare for law school. I am even considering obtaining a paralegal certificate.

    Does this make any sense? Would this be wise? Do you have a suggestion or easier/better way of doing this?

    You will be very helpful to me!

  7. Chrissy says:

    Right now, I am trying to decide which route to take. While researching, I came upon this site. I am hoping that I can get very good advice from you and whoever else would like to help.
    I have high interest in becoming an attorney as well as becoming a Journalist/reporter. I know for a fact that I can obtain any degree in order to attend law school. Both require superior research and writing skills, critical thinking, and knowledge of government and the legal system. I figured Journalism/psychology would be great!
    I have very high expectations of my future. I realize that you basically have one shot at your degree. Face it, who wants to spend 6 years of their life preparing for something that they will have absolutely no interest in doing when finished? So, I want to make sure I have options and that I choose wisely.

    My idea: Major in journalism, Minor in Psychology and take a few law courses to prepare for law school. I am even considering obtaining a paralegal certificate.

    Does this make any sense? Would this be wise? Do you have a suggestion or easier/better way of doing this?

    You will be very helpful to me!