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Christine Corcos


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It portrays women who were smart enough to get through Stanford Law successfully and be hired by such a firm as not smart enough to understand that a lot of things in life and the workplace are unfair, and that very few people, even those with enough power and influence to stand up to the wrongdoers, will step up to the plate to right that unfairness. In addition, has school taught these women nothing?

Feature article

Girls Club or, Charlie's Angels Graduate from Law School, Get Their First Jobs and Lose All Common Sense

by Christine Corcos

David E. Kelley's new "lawyer drama" Girls Club debuted on October 21. If you are interested, tune in soon. It will probably not be around for too many episodes.

Three recent Stanford Law School graduates, the fairly conservative Sarah Mickle (Chyler Leigh), the resolutely tough Lynne Camden (Gretchen Mol), and the relentlessly adorable and mature Jeannie Falls (Kathleen Robertson), share a lovely apartment and brand new careers at a conservative, highbrow, San Francisco mega-firm run by Nicholas Hahn (Giancarlo Esposito) and his cohorts: a sleazy sexually harassing type ("Spencer Lewis," played by Brian Markinson) and a "tough broad" type ("Meredith Holt," played by Lisa Banes). These young women desperately want to be part of the "club" that runs the legal system, the club that does not value "girls." The question is, how desperately? Desperately enough to disband their own "club" (i.e. to abandon their sisterhood)? Desperately enough to play along with the law firm's unwritten rules about accepting unwanted attentions from the male partners and clients? Desperately enough to accept criticisms that may or may not be warranted? Desperately enough to accept second chair (or second fiddle) when they think they deserve better treatment?

David E. Kelley poses these questions as part of a larger consideration of the treatment that pretty, smart and relatively inexperienced women get in the legal workplace. By itself this is an important issue, but Kelley trivializes much of it. The sexual harassment that Jeannie undergoes is now a cliché-The King of Queens satirized it this week in an episode in which a partner's four-year-old son repeatedly grabs Carrie's breasts while she is babysitting him (at work, no less). Just as she gets up the courage to tell the partner, the little boy switches his affections to another secretary in the firm whose charms are more…um…pronounced. In Girls Club, Sarah discovers that another associate ("Rhanda Clifford", played by Christina Chang) is out to torpedo her: the associate convinces her that their supervising partner likes things done a particular way, but this turns out not to be the case. The cynical managing partner assigns Lynne to a capital murder case, for which she is clearly not emotionally or professionally ready, in order to "test her mettle," then causes her to doubt herself even more by revealing that a predatory and manipulative (female) D.A. has complained that she is "infatuated" with her client. The leading female partner in the firm has the nickname "The Praying Mantis", apparently because the associates perceive her as an intellectual and professional stalker.

Indeed, the associates have nicknames for nearly everybody, including their colleague Mitchell Watson (known as "the Worm," apparently because he busies himself trying to win over the partners-maybe "the Weasel" would have been more apt), and the male partners and senior associates, known as "dicks." This seems to be the extent of their attempt to avenge themselves on what they perceive to be the general unfairness of the system at Hahn, Lewis and Holt. And it indicates the major problem with the show, which is that it portrays women who were smart enough to get through Stanford Law successfully and be hired by such a firm as not smart enough to understand that a lot of things in life and the workplace are unfair, and that very few people, even those with enough power and influence to stand up to the wrongdoers, will step up to the plate to right that unfairness. In addition, has school taught these women nothing? Did they not check out the reputation of the firm before they accepted offers? Where did they learn that snapping back at hiring partners is acceptable after a month on the job (if ever)? I have on occasion run into students who think that disrespect toward their professors is a constitutionally protected right-whatever academic dean in charge of students at the time soon disabuses them of that notion and whatever career services professionals are in the building let them know that such behavior on the job leads not to a job offer but to a pink slip.

The enduring problem that Mickle, Camden and Falls face is a simple one: does one burrow into the system and try to change it from within, or does one walk away and try to change it from without, while maintaining the moral high ground? These young women want to have it both ways: they want to be part of the club before they have paid their dues, and they want to change the club even though they are in the minority and don't have the votes. They have, in effect, the same attitude as does Ally McBeal, and they run into the same problems.

Now, Lynne, Sarah and Jeannie actually do have some engaging and attractive characteristics. They are loyal to one another. They are committed to the practice of law (even if they still haven't quite figured out how it squares with the practice of life). They dress nicely (probably too nicely for first year associates still paying off law school debt).

Of course some of the things that happen in the first episode of Girls Club are both ugly and realistic. Some associates do try to sabotage their colleagues. Some male partners are unrepentant, testosterone-soaked sharks who see every XX that comes through their doors as juicy prey. Some female partners have developed carapaces and philosophies that rival those of 100-year-old desert tortoises. Some partners do set new associates up to fail. But all in the same law firm within one month? Yikes. I don't demand absolute truth from my television shows, but so much fantasy is off-putting. The deck is so completely stacked against this trio of professional minnows that they're unlikely to make it through another week in these predator-infested waters, never mind the three or four years it takes for a law firm to make back its initial investment in a new associate.

Maybe that explains all the whining. Sarah is upset when, rather than firing her over some highly inappropriate and gay-bashing comments she makes to Rhanda, Hahn sentences her to ten weekends of therapy and anger management. She insists to her roommates that she is not homophobic-well, perhaps, but anyone who uses a derogatory term referring to gender in the context of a professional conversation (even an angry one) loses the presumption of innocence. Lynne vows that Hahn won't make her cry and she tells him so, leading with her brave little chin. Does she think she is standing up to him, and that he doesn't "get it"? Cute. And why is she standing up to him? Yes, he assigned her to what he thought was a losing case. But why, after rehearsing her opening for days, does she panic and completely forget it? Lucky for her and Sarah, both Hahn and Holt are grownups who won't hold their childishness against them until there's simply no other choice.

Jeannie has a more significant problem, and one that is not of her own making. One of the male partners is harassing her, and making his desire for her extremely obvious. Why does Jeannie fail to confront him? Far from demonstrating her wimpiness, this failure actually shows that even though she is surprised and upset, she, unlike her friends, has some political savvy. Confronting him without having lined up some assistance from other partners in the firm and some witnesses to his behavior is just foolhardy. It is a career-ender. She would be fired. No other law firm, having notice of the reason (and any other law firm would certainly manage to uncover the reason), would hire her. The presumption of innocence here is with the male partner, not with her. How can she address the problem? Either Meredith Holt or Nicholas Hahn seems to be the best bet to assist with Jeannie's complaint. While Hahn might seem to want total obedience and total silence from the associates, his subdued and careful explanation of the death of Lynne's client indicates that he is not a monster. Holt may seem tough as nails, but she does offer the girls some useful advice: "close your door if you're going to gossip"; "don't make enemies out of people who bear you no ill-will"; and "don't call your colleagues names." This is the kind of advice our mothers have always given us, and even if Holt is not a den mother and doesn't see herself as one, she still seems to believe that part of her role as a name partner is to shepherd this clueless group, who seem never to have heard of Betty Friedan or Simone de Beauvoir or the fight they championed, through what remains of the social and political land mines facing the feminist infantry.

That the heroines of the show spend a lot of time writing briefs and doing research is realistic, and I'm glad to see that the "grunt work" of lawyering has some prominence. But a good deal of the plot is just weak, and serves to put the women in peril for no other reason than the custom that we apparently can never see capable and successful women lawyers on television. Lynne is doing well with her case until her supervising partner tells her of a nasty remark made by the D.A. Assuming that he finds it necessary to tell her, why doesn't he assure her that he doesn't believe it? Why doesn't he sit second chair with her, once he realizes that the D.A. is worried about losing, Lynne is rattled, and that this client actually has a chance? It is a capital murder trial, after all. Rainmaking is extremely important in law firms. If Sarah really has brought in the client over whom she and Rhanda are bickering, is it likely that the partners will fail to recognize that, especially since the client may have something to say about his/her representation at the firm? Her partner assigns Jeannie to an ugly and frivolous suit against a hapless physician because the complainant is the sister of another partner. Why not just take the case himself and quietly dispose of it as a favor to his colleague (especially since Jeannie could so easily have mishandled the situation)?

As I have noted, Sarah and Lynne, and to some extent Jeannie, just "don't get it"-- unlike Mitchell Watson, who tells Sarah to "look for a lateral" move before she gets fired. He sees the handwriting on her wall and is generous enough to share it with her. I don't see any ulterior motives in his frank assessment of her position. What I see is political astuteness and some free advice. Here's my free advice to David E. Kelley: either explain to us how such relentlessly silly women got hired in the first place (their looks can't totally account for that, and I am not convinced by the repeated comments by the partners to these associates that in spite of the criticism they actually are capable), and account for the law firm's continuing success in the face of such obvious mis-management, or give the Trendy Trio brain and personality transplants. Get them with the program, or get them to their own law firm, where they will sink or swim-very likely the former, just like this show.

The official website urges viewers to "join the club" and try to win a weekend in San Francisco and a shopping spree at Saks' Fifth Avenue. Silly. Bygones.

For more about the Praying Mantis, see http://www.bartleby.com/65/ma/mantid.html

Posted October 25, 2002

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