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Michael Asimow


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To me, the show was very disappointing in terms of its legal content. The death penalty case and the malpractice case were just silly. Basically, all three plots dealt in some way with sexual issues (sometimes with several sexual issues), apparently on the theory that this is all the audience really cares about.

Feature article


by Michael Asimow

A good story needs a strong antagonist. In David E. Kelley's new TV drama series The Girls Club, that antagonist is a big law firm. The first episode of the show represented the law firm and its partners as cruel, rude, bullying, cynical, greedy, sexually harassing monsters. The firm encourages vicious and underhanded competition between associates.

The protagonists are three young women trying to make their way as junior associates at a big San Francisco firm. The women--who are roommates and were law school classmates--are way out of their depth. They find themselves among a truly horrible and repulsive collection of sub-human beings, and they are totally clueless about how to take care of themselves.

Lynne (the blonde one) is inexplicably defending a death penalty case all by herself. It is her first trial and she is absurdly under-qualified to handle any sort of trial, much less a death penalty case. The client, a studly young man, supposedly had been having an affair with an older woman whom he supposedly killed for some unknown reason. Lynne naively takes the client's word for it that he's innocent.

The case fizzles out in a mistrial and the client dies in prison (apparently of asphyxiation while masturbating). Lynne receives little support and much harsh criticism from Hahn, an older partner, who sits in the back of the courtroom and needles her. Needless to say, she is terrified, freezes when called on to make her opening statement, and botches her cross examination of a witness and other aspects of the defense. Moreover, Lynne is completely thrown off course when the DA tells Hahn that Lynne is infatuated with her client; Hahn requires her to disclose this to the client (actually, the client is infatuated with her).

Jeannie (the redhead) is inexplicably assigned by partner Spencer Lewis to defend a deposition in a stupid medical malpractice case involving the sister of a partner. A gynecologist fainted while giving the client a pelvic exam and collapsed into her crotch. There is no negligence or wrongdoing here. The firm bullies the physician into settling the case because Jeannie credibly threatens to litigate it to death regardless of costs or the merits. But we discover that Lewis assigned Jeannie to this case because he is sexually harassing her. He hugs and fondles her and promises to give her lots more good experience if she will go out with him. Jeannie has no idea how to deal with this kind of predatory behavior and agrees to have dinner with him. Sexual harassment of staff or female associates is a major problem in law firms, but the theme is handled here in an unsubtle, sledge hammer manner.

Meanwhile, Sarah (the brunette) is enmeshed in a vicious rivalry with another associate named Rhanda. Both are competing for the favor of Meredith, a cynical and unpleasant female partner who is called "the praying mantis" behind her back. Meredith claims that she is the last bastion of masculinity in the firm, because a woman must be even more masculine than the men to survive in this Darwinian environment.
Rhanda tells Sarah to write her portion of a brief in long flowing sentences--so, needless to say, Meredith thinks Sarah is an unqualified jerk who can't write. As a result of her skillful maneuvering, Rhanda gets to argue the motion and Sarah is in Meredith's dog house. We don't, however, learn anything about what this case is actually about. Sarah tells off Rhanda in the hallway, calling her a "dyke" in the hearing of everybody within miles. This nearly gets Sarah fired and she has to spend 10 weekends taking anger management courses (time for which she can't even bill!). Another associate (Mitchell, known as "The Worm") tells her to start looking for a new job.

To me, the show was very disappointing in terms of its legal content. The death penalty case and the malpractice case were just silly. Basically, all three plots dealt in some way with sexual issues (sometimes with several sexual issues), apparently on the theory that this is all the audience really cares about. As compared to The Practice or Law and Order, there was nothing remotely approaching thematic material of interest in terms of law practice or professional responsibility. The legal material was as lightweight as Ally McBeal even though the show is a drama, not a comedy. Hopefully, Kelley will come up with much more interesting legal substance in future shows or this viewer won't be tuning in again.

The Girls Club is, however, interesting in a different way. It is part of a recurring theme found in novels and films which demonize large law firms. The Harris Poll asks each year about the public's opinion of various institutions. Law firms bring up the absolute bottom of the list--behind such suspect institutions as Congress, the media, labor union officials, the military, or big corporations. (As a result of recent corporate scandals, big business will probably plunge into the sewer along with law firms.) Sadly, novels and films reflect (and perhaps reinforce) the public's contempt and hatred for law firms.

John Grisham is the best selling novelist in the world. In Grisham's novels, law firms are consistently represented as pits of corruption and all-around evil. Obviously, The Firm is the best example--a respected tax law firm turns out to be a collection of killers and a front for the mob. However, in many other Grisham novels, both big and small law firms are shown as greedy, disgusting, unethical institutions--think of The Street Lawyer, The Rainmaker, The Partner, The Testament, and The Runaway Jury among others. (The Chamber is an exception--a big law firm is supportive of an associate who takes on a death penalty case pro bono.) Numerous other novels have imitated Grisham's approach and vilified law firms.

And it's not just books. The same is true in film--and not only adaptations of Grisham's books like The Firm and The Rainmaker. Numerous other films, some of them very good, have trashed law firms. Just think of The Devil's Advocate, Regarding Henry, Liar Liar, The Verdict, Class Action, and Philadelphia, among others. In each of them, law firms and their partners are represented as greedy, unethical, homophobic scoundrels. In my article Embodiment of Evil: Law Firms in the Movies, 48 UCLA L. Rev. 1339 (2001), I sought to identify and explain this phenomenon and to question whether real law firms were anything like their bad filmic counterparts.

Until now, law firms have been treated benignly on television. LA Law treated the firm of McKenzie, Brackman as the place where many legal and personal stories were situated; the firm itself was seldom vilified (although some partners like Brackman or Becker were represented negatively). The Practice treats a small firm in a favorable way--the lawyers and staff are mutually supportive and idealistic. The First Years (an ill-fated TV series which debuted and quickly died last year) sometimes showed some of the negative aspects of big firm practice, but the stories were too silly to be treated as an indictment of the institution.

But The Girls Club is another matter entirely. Here the enemy is the law firm itself--not opposing lawyers, prosecutors, judges, or evil clients. The firm is a clone of the firms in Grisham novels or films like The Devil's Advocate or Class Action. It consists of truly disgusting partners who oppress and harass young associates and encourage vicious rivalries among them. It is dog-eat-dog, profit-maximizing, and in all ways repulsive. It is a horrible place to work. The series will certainly reinforce the public's view that law firms are the pits of evil. Fortunately, if the debut show is any indication of the show's quality, it will quickly disappear. But what do I know? I said the same thing about Ally McBeal.

Posted: October 25, 2002

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