Alternative Careers for Lawyers: How real is it?
posted by Jessica Silbey
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.