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The Ex-Lawyers Club

Many attorneys have left the legal profession to write or produce TV shows, making the case that their training uniquely prepares them for show biz.

January 22, 2002|CRAIG TOMASHOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Never let it be said that lawyers haven't contributed something entertaining to popular culture. After all, they've inspired a whole genre of jokes. Who could forget a classic like "How can you tell when a lawyer is lying?" (His lips are moving.) Or the ever popular "Why won't sharks attack lawyers?" (Professional courtesy.)

For years, lawyers have been a popular target for film and television writers, who routinely portrayed attorneys as selfish, briefcase-toting boors. These days, however, a growing number of attorneys have decided to switch sides rather than fight the stereotype. More and more, they are becoming television writers and show runners.

Although there are no reliable statistics, at least two dozen former lawyers have abandoned legal careers and successfully made the transition to cranking out episodes of TV shows. The list is topped by David E. Kelley, the former Boston attorney who, with shows like "The Practice," "Ally McBeal" and "Boston Public," is perhaps the highest-profile example of a lawyer making the leap into TV writing success.

Still, several others have made a similar move. Carol Mendelsohn runs CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." Rich Appel is the former executive producer of "King of the Hill" and is developing for NBC his own pilot based on his experiences as a federal prosecutor. Barry Schindel is in charge of NBC's "Law & Order." Jeff Rake was co-creator of last season's Fox series "The Street." Stephen Engel, producer of the recently departed NBC sitcom "Inside Schwartz," is also a former attorney. "Family Law," "First Monday" and "The Guardian" are just a few of the other series that employ lawyers as writers.

"I have no doubt that this is a trend," says Bob Breech, senior vice president for Kelley's production company. "I think it probably began with the glamorization of lawyers on 'L.A. Law,' which swelled the ranks of students in law school. Meanwhile, lawyers saw it and realized, 'I can do that too.'"

There have been plenty of shows about other professions, such as doctors, bankers, even journalists. However, it seems that the unique nature of their jobs makes attorneys not only perfect for a show but also gives them an advantage when it comes to writing a series.

"Lawyers have a different way of thinking," says Schindel, who worked as a public defender in the Bronx and as a civil litigator for a private firm before selling a spec script and leaving the practice of law in 1996. "With lawyers, you're getting very aggressive and competitive people, traits you need to survive in television writing. Fields like medicine and banking aren't based on adversarial positions. But with the law, the competitive fire is taught to you from the beginning."

According to Mendelsohn, who in the early 1980s left a burgeoning law career in Washington, D.C., to make it as a writer in Hollywood, having experience as an attorney also provides a sense of discipline that can be lacking in television. "Working as a lawyer gave me a serious work ethic," she says. "I was spending time writing Supreme Court briefs, and you could lose your job if you literally didn't dot every I and cross every T.

"You're taught to look at and solve problems quickly. I remember once being told that notes you get back from producers on how to improve your script can be brutal, and I said, 'Nothing can be harder than the law, where you get abused a lot more.' I've never had a TV experience that comes close to how difficult it was when I was a lawyer."

Adds Jonathan Shapiro, who spent eight years as a federal prosecutor before landing a job as story editor on "The Practice," "I learned how to write my own briefs, which teaches you how to write a particular amount of pages in an assertive, persuasive, entertaining way on a deadline. Being a trial lawyer, as I was, you essentially go into combat every day and, after having adversaries punch holes in your work, you toughen up quick. Which is important if you're going to make it in television."

Because the very nature of their job requires lawyers to be waist-deep in the personal dramas of their clients, they often acquire a keen understanding of what makes for a good, compelling story. "The law is a marvelous reservoir of conflict," says Breech. "The full range of human character traits are on display for you." And not just the dramatic traits, either.

"Just read some trial transcripts," says Appel, who went from working for the U.S. attorney's office in New York to writing on "The Simpsons." "They're some of the funniest things you'll ever see. That's why, by and large, lawyers are some of the smartest, funniest people I've ever known."

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