BAD RECEPTION: New reality television program distorts image of attorneys

Image of attorneys distorted by new reality TV show“First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”, as one of Shakespeare’s characters in Henry VI memorably remarked.

Rarely has a profession suffered so much scorn (and threats of violence) through the printed and spoken word as the law. (Unless, of course, you count Diderot’s sanguinary reflection on monarchs and clergy: “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”)

And here in the U.S. public perception of attorneys has never been more negative.

You would therefore think that the last thing the profession needs is a reality TV show depicting lawyers at their worst. Yet that’s precisely what NBC is offering in its newest series, The Law Firm, which debuts on July 28. Twelve attorneys will compete for a $250,000 prize as they try actual cases before judges and juries, which will result in legally binding outcomes for the litigants. According to the web site, “the cases range from First Amendment issues to neighbor disputes to wrongful death.”

Predictably, the contestants will stop at nothing to win and will seize every opportunity to bully and humiliate each other. If the video clip available at the site is any indication, viewers will have plenty of opportunity to see lawyers behaving badly. As a voiceover in the clip explains, “What The Apprentice did for the business world, The Law Firm will do for the legal world”—as if that’s somehow cause for celebration.

Lest you still may be nurturing hopes that this program will cast attorneys and the legal profession in a flattering light, consider the following samples of dialogue uttered by Law Firm contestants (which you can hear for yourself on the video):

Your case is a loser and so are you.”
All’s fair in love and war, right? Well, this is war.”
We’re dealing with a bunch of egotistical men.”

This seems very far removed from the principles described in the preamble to the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which exhort the attorney to “demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges, other lawyers and public officials”, and “[a]s a public citizen,” to “further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.”

So much for furthering public confidence in the rule of law.

None of this can be good news for lawyers. How sad for all of us that these few were willing to demean and cheapen the profession in exchange for short-lived notoriety and (presumably) some cash.

Tomorrow is the 4th of July, a day when the U.S. commemorates its independence from Britain. The drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, was himself an attorney. Regardless of those who seek to tarnish it, the law remains an ancient and honorable calling—if only we conduct ourselves as if we truly believe it.

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