Anthony Trollope on Lawyer TV Shows

trollope.jpgOne of the unhappy side effects of a legal education is that it destroys your ability to enjoy lawyer movies and attorney TV shows. After I acquired the vast expertise of a single semester of law school, my wife informed me that I had become absolutely insufferable as a partner for watching “Law & Order” because I kept saying things like “That isn’t really how it works…” And “Law & Order” is actually a pretty accurate lawyer show. (Of course, watching ER with my wife is a pain.) Well, it would seem that legal nitpicking of the portrayal of the law in fiction is not new. I recently found the following complaint written by Anthony Trollope in his novel Phineas Finn (1869):

The poor fictionist very frequently finds himself to have been wrong in his description of things in general, and is told so, roughly by the critics, and tenderly by the friends of his bosom. He is moved to tell of things of which he omits to learn the nature before he tells them – as should be done by a strictly honest fictionist. . . . And then those terrible meshes of the Law! How is a fictionist, in these excited days, to create the needed biting interest without legal difficulties; and how again is he to steer his little bark clear of so many rocks, — when the rocks and the shoals have been purposefully arranged to make the taking of a pilot on board necessary? As to those law meshes, a benevolent pilot will, indeed, now and again give a poor fictionist a helping hand, — not used, however, generally, with much discretion.

McCoy.jpgIt would seem that litigation (notice that there are no TV shows – or Victorian novels – about transactional lawyers) has been “the biting interest” of fiction in “excited days” for some time, and the springes of the law (to use Holmes’ wonderful phrase) have been trapping unwary writers for many years.

Of course it could be worse. I once watched “24” with a friend of mine who works for the CIA. He would constantly be saying things like, “I can’t tell you guys any more, but this part is SO NOT realistic.” In his heart of hearts, however, I know that he wants to be Jack Bower. (He claims to be an accountant for the CIA, but my wife and I are convinced that he is actually a free-lance assassin on the “Company’s” payroll.)

Of course it goes without saying that no matter how often lawyers pick at “Law & Order’s” nits, they all want to be Jack McCoy.

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11 Responses

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    They ALL want to be Jack? I would think that at least some women might refrain from such aspiration, especially given Jack’s penchant for affairs with his Assistant DAs. I’ve always thought Jamie Ross was a strong character for women (perhaps I’m wrong, female readers will have to chime in here) when she was the Assistant District Attorney: I had rather hoped she might become the Executive Asst. District Attorney. I found Nora Lewin to be rather weak in comparison to Adam Schiff or Arthur Branch. Which of course leaves women with Lieutenant Van Buren, who has a fondness for the poetry of Langston Hughes and sued her dept. for racial discrimination after not receiving a promotion: maybe not a character women lawyers would want to be, but certainly one they could admire and respect….

  2. John Armstrong says:

    Thank God almost none of us mathematicians want to be Charlie Eppes. Jack McCoy is a great character, but at leat he’s not a caricature.

  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I’ve yet to see this show about the mathematician, but after learning one of the characters names is Amita Ramanujan, I wonder how many viewers get the reference to Srinivasa Aiyangar Ramanujan (1887-1920), the brilliant Indian mathematician who left us too soon.

  4. C says:

    Wasn’t the protaganist in Grisham’s “The Firm” a transactional (tax) attorney?

  5. Bruce Boyden says:

    I had become absolutely insufferable as a partner for watching “Law & Order” because I kept saying things like “That isn’t really how it works…”

    You’re a lot more restrained than me. I scream at the television, “Object! Object, you idiot, object! Move to strike!”

  6. Anon says:

    Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m not sure that excerpt from the novel says what you think. When I read it, my impression is that he is saying:

    1) it’s difficult to be accurate in his “description of things in general,”

    2) those inaccuracies might be the grounds for a potential lawsuit.

    I don’t know the context, but it doesn’t seem to me that he is focusing on the profession of law, but rather the consequences of factual inaccuracies about almost any subject.

  7. Anon says:

    Insert “legal” before “consequences” in that last sentence.

  8. Jack Bauer says:

    It’s Bauer not Bower.

  9. Susan says:

    I find it hard to believe you were reading Phineas Phinn, Nate. . . Tell me more. (Actually, if you want to listen, we should talk. . . .)

  10. NBO says:

    anon: In context it is pretty clear that Trollope is talking about legal elements in his plot, as at this point in the novel the hero has studied to become a barrister and has just been delivered from legal difficulties.

  11. Bauer not Bower says:

    Isn’t it Jack Bauer?