One 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.
It 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.