TV Review: USA’s “Benched,” Starring Eliza Coupe

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This past Tuesday night, the USA network aired the premiere episode of “Benched,” a new legally themed sitcom starring Eliza Coupe (“Happy Endings,” “Scrubs”) as an ex-corporate lawyer experiencing the trials and tribulations of life as a public defender. Created by Michaela Watkins and Damon Jones, “Benched” brings the fun back to the legal sitcom in ways many of its recent predecessors have failed.  While “Benched” is not a perfect depiction of the legal profession, lawyers, particularly those engaged in a criminal practice, will relate to the challenges faced by its PD protagonist.

Coupe plays Nina Whitley whose life as a prominent corporate attorney is derailed by a comedic in-office blow-up following her discovery that she failed to make partner.  Now plagued by the gossip surrounding her breakdown, Whitley finds herself with few employment options despite her impressive pedigree.  Reluctantly, she takes a job with the public defender’s office in an attempt to revamp her career, but in the process, rediscovers herself.

At least in the pilot, the focus is exclusively on Whitley and set primarily within the confines of the courtroom and the public defender’s office.  We assume, however, that the show may dive deeper into Whitley’s personal life in future episodes based on the groundwork set forth in the pilot.  Rounding out the cast are Jay Harrington as fellow public defender Phil Quinlan, Fred Melamed as Judge Don Nelson, Jolene Purdy as legal intern Micah, and Carter MacIntyre as Whitley’s ex-fiancé turned prosecutor Trent Barber.

The pilot sets the stage for Whitley’s career path.  Waiting to become the next partner at her law firm, Whitley discovers that the position has been given to her attractive yet less legally-qualified colleague.  Enraged by the news, Whitley unleashes an epic rant on her firm and co-workers which ends with her smashing a vase given to the firm by Sir Elton John himself.  Preceded by exaggerated rumors of her blow-up, Whitley emerges in the public defender’s office and immediately learns she is scheduled to be in court for numerous arraignment hearings five minutes later.  As if walking into court completely unprepared wasn’t bad enough, Whitley discovers that the prosecutor is none other than her ex-fiancé, now legal nemesis.  Frustrated after “losing” multiple requests for bail, Whitley finally uses her legal moxie to achieve having bail set at $1 for an alleged diaper thief, much to the chagrin of her nemesis.

We here at Abnormal Use are not criminal lawyers, and we certainly do not pretend to know the internal machinations of a public defender’s office.  ”Benched” goes out of its way to create a stark contrast between the work environment of those in the public sector from the cozy confines of a big law firm.  Just as many shows exaggerate the perceived “luxuries” of the firm life, we assume “Benched” took similar liberties with the PD’s office.  We seriously doubt the typical PD’s office mirrors the chaotic confines of a debt collection call center.  Nonetheless, many of the portrayals of the difficulties faced by lawyers in the public sector are well-founded.  Too many files without the time or opportunity to work them up as much as the lawyer would prefer is not just a story made for Hollywood.  Yet, like Whitley, lawyers make it work.

At its roots, “Benched” is a comedy and Coupe will certainly make you laugh.  For lawyers, the show is more than just a half hour of comedic relief.  Whether or not the message was intended, “Benched” serves as an excellent reminder of what makes this profession so great. Regardless of a lawyer’s practice area, there will always be more work that can conceivably be addressed.  Yet, when the lights come on in the courtroom, the skills take over and lawyers find a way to make each case look like it is the only one on his or her radar.  Like any great lawyer, Whitley finds a way to thrive in the face of insurmountable odds.  While the general public will love Coupe as an actor, lawyers will love Whitley as an attorney.  Sure, “Benched” takes some artistic liberties with the legal profession, but lawyers will certainly be able to relate to its shenanigans.

“Benched” airs on USA Tuesday nights at 10:30 pm EST.

TV Review: NBC’s “Bad Judge,” Starring Kate Walsh

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Tonight, NBC airs the premiere episode of “Bad Judge,” a new legally themed sitcom starring television and film veteran Kate Walsh as a municipal court judge with a chaotic personal life. Created by Anne Heche and produced by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, “Bad Judge” looks and feels like the legal version of the similarly named Cameron Diaz movie, “Bad Teacher.” As you might imagine, “Bad Judge” does not go out of its way to accurately depict the legal profession or the daily working lives of judges. Nonetheless, “Bad Judge” is certainly amusing if not believable once the aspirations for legal realism are set aside.  Warning: Spoilers abound in the review below.

Walsh plays Rebecca Wright, whose life as a hard living, sexually charged woman intermingles with her career as a criminal court judge.  Aided by stashed away liquor and sexual flings with the State’s expert witness in her chambers, she is somehow able to manage her judicial responsibilities despite her battles with hangovers and pregnancy scares.  Through unorthodox sentencing methods (i.e. in the pilot episode, she orders a defendant to enroll in a college feminism class and to attend wearing an “I Am a Convicted Bigamist” t-shirt), she takes seriously the idea that the criminal code is a mechanism of rehabilitation rather than punishment.  Despite the flaws in her personal life, Wright goes out of her way to aid the families of defendants while their loved ones are locked away.

At least in the first two episodes, the focus is exclusively on Wright and set primarily within the courthouse.  Rounding out the cast are John Ducey as prosecutor Tom Barlow, Mather Zickel as Wright’s aforementioned expert witness love interest Dr. Gary Boyd, and Tone Bell as the awkwardly ever present bailiff Tedward Mulray.

The pilot primarily sets the stage for Wright’s life and career path.  While fighting a hangover and after making a pit stop for a pregnancy test, Wright presides over a bail hearing for an alleged bigamist.  Announced as one of the most prominent psychologists in all of California, Dr. Boyd testifies that the bigamist is a flight risk and, thus, Wright denies bail.  Shortly thereafter, Wright and Boyd retire to chambers to continue what is apparently an on-again, off-again sexual relationship.  Wright then leaves the courthouse to serve as “counsel” for Robby Shoemaker (Theodore Barnes), the child of persons previously sentenced by Wright, as he awaits punishment at his elementary school for drawing derogatory pictures of his teacher.  Later, she returns to the courthouse in order to convict and sentence the aforementioned bigamist.

The second episode, “Meteor Shower,” is much of the same.  Rather than stopping for a pregnancy test, Wright’s pilgrimage to the courthouse is interrupted in order for her to place a fireman’s axe into the front tire of an angry motorist’s convertible.  Wright presides over the “trial” of a teen actress and welcomes the paparazzi with a double-fisted, middle finger salute.  After getting stood up by Dr. Boyd, Wright gets a little too high and has to call EMS after eating two pot brownies stolen from the evidence locker.  Not to be deterred, Wright gets back on her feet, returns to the courthouse, and sentences the teen actress to four weeks of seclusion at a convent so that she can “find herself.”

From a legal perspective, “Bad Judge” has it all wrong.  The show is so legally inaccurate, one has to wonder if the writers intentionally made it so.  From the timing of the legal proceedings to the courtroom candor and unethical conduct of Wright and the attorneys alike, it seems implausible that the writers engaged in any research whatsoever.  If “Bad Judge” is the product of legal research, then that research is the equivalent of writing a doctoral thesis with Wikipedia as a primary source.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, we will assume that the writers intentionally made no attempt to create an accurate portrayal of the legal system.  And, that is okay.  There is nothing worse than a show that contains just enough realism to make it believable while butchering key components and leaving the general public with absurd ideas about the legal system.  No one will come away from watching “Bad Judge” thinking they have gained some insight into the inner workings of a courtroom.  Clearly, that is not the purpose of the show.  ”Bad Judge” is a comedy centered around Wright’s disheveled life.  While the character is a polar opposite of her previous roles in “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” Walsh plays the role brilliantly. And, in this, “Bad Judge” certainly delivers.

The pilot episode airs tonight at 9:00 EST on NBC.

Abnormal Interviews: Actress Roma Maffia from Disclosure and Double Jeopardy

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Today, Abnormal Use continues its series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which this site will conduct interviews with law professors, practitioners, and makers of legal-themed pop culture. As you might recall, we here at Abnormal Use have been fortunate to interview individuals in the entertainment industry who have participated in legally themed television shows and films.  We have interviewed Phil Morris, the actor who played the flamboyant attorney, Jackie Chiles, in “Seinfeld,” as well as the late, great James Rebhorn, who played, among many other roles, the FBI expert witness in My Cousin Vinny. We recently had the opportunity to speak with actress Roma Maffia, who has appeared in a spate of blockbuster films and television series, including Disclosure, Double Jeopardy, ”Nip/Tuck,” “Boston Legal,” “Law & Order,” “Profiler,” and Nick of Time, to name just a few. She has played a lawyer or judge in many of these roles. A fun historical note: Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the release of Double Jeopardy, a film in which she played a jailhouse lawyer dispensing advice to Ashley Judd’s character.  (You remember the crazy premise: If she has been wrongfully convicted of a murder that never occurred, then double jeopardy would prevent her prosecution for later murdering the purported original victim.). Additionally, this December 4 will be the twentieth anniversary of the release of Disclosure, the Michael Crichton sexual harassment thriller in which she played a lawyer advising the Michael Douglas character in his dispute with his employer. The interview is as follows:

ON THE ANNIVERSARIES OF DISCLOSURE AND DOUBLE JEOPARDY

Kyle White: Were you aware that the anniversaries were coming up for those movies?

Roma Maffia: Well, I wasn’t. It’s pretty shocking. No, I wasn’t.

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LEGAL EXPERIENCE PRIOR TO FIRST LEGAL ROLE IN DISCLOSURE

RM: None!  . . . [I]n New York, I didn’t do much television or film, but I acted the role of the character who would be arrested by the police, such as a prostitute or a drug addict, or some kind of felon as opposed to a lawyer.

KW: Interesting.

RM: It’s after I did Disclosure . . . . Well, you know, you get type cast. So, because it was Disclosure, all of a sudden I became the lawyer. . . . . I did do research on the movie, but before the movie? No, I had nothing to do with law.

KW: So, you are saying that Disclosure was the first time you had been involved with acting as a lawyer or a judge?

RM: First time, absolutely, first time!

ASSISTANCE FROM THE LEGAL COMMUNITY IN PREPARING FOR ROLES

RM: On those roles as lawyers, any role, pretty much, I’m sure myself, like a lot of actors, do a lot of research. So, I’ve been very fortunate to have really great people. Also, when I did Disclosure, it was fantastic because it was the big case of the football player that was televised.

KW: The O.J. Simpson trial?

RM: Yes. So, I got to watch all day of the trial. So I got to watch Marcia [Clark], the female lawyer, sort of be my role model for Disclosure. For Double Jeopardy, I also had legal help and advice, [and I] went to a prison in L.A. So, I’ve been very lucky to have lawyers help me or forensic pathologists. Everyone in a specific field is very, very helpful. So, all the lawyers that have helped me have been very generous with their time and have taught me quite a lot.

KW: That’s great. Is there any lawyer in particular . . . who has helped you in preparing for your roles, or have you just sort of talked with a different lawyer each time?

RM: I’ve talked with different lawyers each time.

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KW: That is interesting to know that you dealt directly with the legal community.

RM: Very much so, yes. I actually thought with the amount of lawyers I played, I was going to get some kind of degree or something. Is that possible?

KW: [Laughter] You should, you definitely should!

RM: I should!

IMPORTANT SOCIAL CONTEXT OF DISCLOSURE

RM: Well, I had done The Paper with Ron Howard before, where I played a reporter. But it was my first really large role, and I loved the subject matter because, at the time, it was a big hoo ha that sexual harassment had not been addressed in film. And then that it should be addressed with the man that is a victim caused an interesting stir. But, just that the topic was so – everyone on the set was so impassioned by this topic. It was also a time, when, you know, computers and how they were used in offices, and the mixture of a computer and send[ing] messages in code. It was very exciting. The whole concept of the sexual harassment; and, I think some people were like, “Oh I didn’t even realize man could be sexually harassed, even if he is the boss.” I think it addressed lots of elements that were surprising . . . .

SERVICE ON A REAL-LIFE JURY

RM: . . . I was on a jury . . . [I]t was the first time I really understood, or got an inkling, like I said, about how specific the law is to . . . that it was frustrating.

KW: That’s interesting. I’m curious, on what kind of jury did you serve?

RM: It was a mother who had killed her four year old daughter.

KW: Oh, wow, that’s a tough one to sit through.

RM: Oh, my god, I begged. You know, it was funny because the judge, it was in Los Angeles, and the judge recognized me from wherever. He sort of made fun, like is this the way you imagined it when you do your film or television? I was like, “No, no, no, it’s not!” I didn’t want to do that case, but just in that case, and I guess because it was real life, so the stakes were very different. How we couldn’t get what we wanted for the punishment for the mother to be. So, because of what seemed like minutia, but anyway, I know, it’s no. But that, I found very difficult and frustrating.

KW: . . . [W]hen did that happen in your professional career?

RM: It happened about seven years ago. When I was there, Pat Boone was also serving on a jury.

KW: Really?

RM: Yes, He was in court outside having lunch at the public lunch table. Which was pretty funny, I thought.

ADVICE TO LITIGATORS – “LESS IS MORE”

KW: Any legal roles you have played since your jury duty experience that the experience on the jury has shaped? If so, how?

RM: [T]he one thing is less is more. That’s the one thing I take away from my jury experience and also talking to lawyers about what a witness is to or not to say.

KW: . . . What exactly do you mean there? That sounds like good advice for practicing attorneys.

RM: I just meant that it’s, instead of going on, just answer the question, without leaving room for any interpretation of the answer. No interpretation, just the answer. Simple, “Yes,” “No.” You know, I think it’s human nature to go, “No, but I saw this,” and not realizing you’ve opened up another topic that you weren’t aware that you did. Now we go down another rabbit hole. Does that make sense?

KW: Exactly. And you’ve touched on probably one of our frustrations encountered in the practice of law – getting witnesses to understand that; to simply answer the question.

RM: Yes, I think it’s a thing you think you’re talking to your parents or the principal and the more you talk, the more they are going to understand your dilemma without understanding the more you talk the more you are setting up a dilemma.

HER FAVORITE ROLE

KW: . . . You’ve played, some major characters in some huge television shows and other movies. You’ve been in “Boston Legal.” You’ve been in “Law & Order.” You’ve been in “The Sopranos.” You’ve been in “ER” and recently. You played in the hit series “Nip/Tuck” and played a huge role in that. Which one of your roles that you played in the past has been your favorite role and why?

RM: That’s such an interesting question. I think because. . . Each one has their own uniqueness that I will remember. But definitely, Disclosure, because it was an eye-opener into a whole other world of film. I learned a lot about film, which I had not known or been introduced to. But Liz on “Nip/Tuck” was being an anesthesiologist and learning all those things, a little like people generous to teach me was. That’s what it is. It’s just so fascinating to be able to enter into all these worlds and just learn just a little bit of something. So I have to say, Liz on “Nip/Tuck.” I’d have to say on “Profiler,” my character was a forensic pathologist. And, I loved that. It was fascinating; pathology and crime, and honoring the dead. So many of them. Yet, there are roles that I do that have been plays that are comedies that I enjoy. So, it’s hard to pinpoint because I could go through my resume and go “Oh, no, I love that one, too.” I’ve just forgotten what I did. So, for now, those ones pop out. Oh, and I loved the character in Nick of Time. She was fantastic. So, yes. It’s hard to say.

Abnormal Interviews: Lawyer and X-Files Actor Zachary Ansley

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Today, Abnormal Use continues its series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which this site will conduct interviews with law professors, practitioners, and makers of legal-themed pop culture. For the latest installment, we turn to lawyer Zachary Ansley.  Before becoming an attorney, Ansley had a varied and successful career in film and television. Twenty-one years ago today, on September 10, 1993, he appeared as alien abductee Billy Miles in the pilot episode of “The X-Files.” Can you believe that the first episode of “The X-Files” aired 21 years ago? That character became central to the conspiracy mythology in “The X-Files,” and Ansley returned to the show on four more occasions. Over the course of his run on the series, Billy Miles was abducted by aliens at least twice, killed at least twice, and transformed into a formidable alien super soldier in pursuit of Agent Scully and her  baby. To refresh your recollection, here’s how the The X-Files Wiki begins its very detailed entry on Miles:

Billy Miles was the son of Detective Miles and a resident of Bellefleur, Oregon. He claimed to have been under temporary alien control several times in his life. After one final abduction, Miles was genetically altered into a human/alien hybrid, and became a super-soldier.

For good measure, here’s how The X-Files Wiki describes the super-soldiers on the series:

Super-soldiers are human replacements that look human but are actually a type of alien. Fearless and virtually unstoppable, these aliens are not directed by anyone and are answerable to no-one except their own biological imperative to survive. They want to knock out any and all attempts by humans to survive the alien colonization of Earth and were created to aid in the extraterrestrial repopulation of the planet. Their collective name, “super-soldiers,” derives from the aliens themselves, but was often used cynically by humans.

Ansley is now a shareholder at Owen Bird in Vancouver. He practices in the areas of civil litigation, employment law, intellectual property and other areas.

To commemorate the anniversary of the pilot’s airing, we sought an interview with Mr. Ansley, who kindly granted our request. Without further ado, the interview is as follows.

JIM DEDMAN: You appeared as Billy Miles in five episodes of “The X-Files.” The first being the pilot, which aired 21 years ago this month. How did you first get involved with the show and get that part?

ZACHARY ANSLEY: I was an actor in Vancouver. I was a child actor in Vancouver, actually, and I was part of the Vancouver Youth Theatre from the age of 12 on, and so what happened was, when the film and television industry started to grow in Vancouver, the Vancouver Youth Theatre was there to sort of feed it with young talent. So casting directors would come to the Vancouver Youth Theatre, and so that’s how I became involved in the industry. And prior to “The X-Files,” I had done some pretty high level, I guess, or high exposure stuff in Canada. I had done a few movies of the week, I had done a few Canadian feature films, so I was known to casting directors in Vancouver at that time, and when “The X-Files” pilot came along, I auditioned and was fortunate enough to get the roll.

JD: Now, [X-Files creator] Chris Carter did an interview about a year ago with an “X-Files” fan site, and they asked him actually one of the questions I was going to ask you, which is if there is a favorite moment or memory from the filming of the pilot that sticks out in your memory. One of his was your audition, and so I wanted to ask you that same question. What is it about filming the pilot that sticks out in your mind these years later?

ZA:  . . . I had never heard that one of Chris Carter’s fondest memories was my audition. That’s very kind of him to say that.

[T]he most exciting part about doing that pilot was just getting the part, which was kind of before I went to acting school in New York City. It was actually September of ’93 that I started acting school in New York City, I believe. That was at Circle in the Square theatre school in New York, so this was before then, obviously, and I was hungry for work, and I was just happy to be part of something that could potentially grow into something a lot bigger than a pilot. And it eventually did, so that was very exciting. In terms of the actual filming itself, I do remember Chris, sort of in his quiet and confident way, sort of tending to the projects, reviewing each unit that was filmed, and reviewing playbacks and making sure that the images and the scenes aligned with his vision, and I think, you know, I didn’t have a lot of interaction with Chris while we were filming outside of after the audition, but I do recall him being there and attending to the details and making sure, as they say, that it aligned with his visions, and that they got it right, and that we were getting it right. So, I remember that, and I remember also working with Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, and that was and they were very easy to work with and stayed very professional. And also you could tell that they were also trying to figure out how to do this right and what was the right sort of tone for the show and their characters and their relationship, and you know, you kind of got a sense that these people were working very hard to make this work, and so that was very exciting to just be a part of that.

JD: Did you have any idea at that time that it would become this huge cultural phenomenon?

ZA: I didn’t, but at the same time, not that I thought that it wasn’t going to be that, either. I mean, it was just so fresh and new to me that I was just excited to be a part of it, and I was certainly hopeful that it would become something much bigger, and I was just sort of focusing on that moment and not letting myself think too much into the future. And, of course, my character at that time didn’t have a future with the show, so maybe that played into sort of my ability to focus on the pilot episode itself.

JD: Well, that anticipates my next question, which is, seven years later, you come back to the show starting with the Season 7 finale. How did that come to be?

ZA: Well, it was very interesting. I certainly didn’t expect it. It was a pleasant surprise. At that time, of course, “The X-Files” had moved the filming . . . from Vancouver back down to Los Angeles. It started filming in Vancouver, and then after a certain amount of seasons, I think it was 6, moved down to Los Angeles, so I they called me, and I didn’t expect it at that time. I was finishing my last year of undergrad at the University of British Columbia. I remember it was sort of final exam time that I got the call that they wanted to reprise the character and bring it back, and the reason they were going to bring it back was because David Duchovny’s character was maybe going to be leaving the show, and they wanted to sort of bring it back full circle to the original “X-File,” which of course, Billy Miles was a part of. So, I was very excited to get that call and happy to come back to the show.

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JD: And the episodes you were in aren’t just regular episodes of the show; they were big mythology episodes with the alien abductions, and of course, Fox Molder gets abducted, and Scully gets pregnant. How did it feel to be a part of those sort of big picture episodes of the series?

ZA: Well, going back to the show after that length of time, when it already was a cult phenomenon big hit, at that point, was really special. I mean, it was just an honor to be back, and I felt very fortunate to be doing it and to be reprising the role of Billy Miles, and especially because he becomes abducted again, and he comes back with these special powers that are sort of similar to like the character in Terminator 2 where he can sort of regenerate himself in different shapes, and they can try to kill him in trash compactors and elevators shafts, but he keeps coming back to life. So, I mean, that added a whole other dimension to my character that was just a lot of fun to play, and of course, was fun to be a part of those mythological episodes near the end.

JD: And looking back in 2014, what would you say the legacy of the show is?

ZA: Well, I mean, the legacy of the show, I think, is just how far it sort of popularized the science fiction and conspiracy kind of episodic television – how far it brought that particular component into pop culture that I don’t think was there. Obviously, it was there, partially, but it certainly wasn’t there to the extent that it was after “The X-Files,” and I think it’s obviously generated a lot of buzz, and shows have attempted to repeat that success. But I think it was, you know, the pioneer in how far it was sort of pushing that conspiracy theory, “someone is watching you out there” genre that I don’t recall being there as much as when I was younger.

JD: How did you go from acting to the legal profession?

ZA: Well, that’s a good question. I mean, I get asked that a lot when people ask me what I do now or what I used to do or find out that I used to act. It didn’t seem like such a stretch to me. . . . I didn’t welcome the thought of always auditioning for your next role, even when you had work, so there was a lack of stability there, a lack of predictability there, when you’re an actor, and you kind of have to embrace that, because it’s just the nature of the beast when you’re an actor, you know, until you’re superstar and you get offered parts all the time. . . .  [I]t kind of wears on you after some time, and I had been an actor, like I said, since I was a child, and I had been doing it for twenty years, actually, before I stopped and went to law school. I did that through undergrad.  . .  . [T]hat lack of control over your own career path kind of began to wear on me a bit, and I started to look for other outlets to engage . . . other interests, such as fundamental legal interests of values in society and how those are reflected in our laws and how those are applied and policy and those kind of things. So, I found myself sort of in my undergrad sort of slowly drifting more [toward] political science and economics themes or interests and a little bit away from the pop culture Hollywood greatest blockbuster hit interest that I had more when I was younger.

JD: Do you think that the acting profession and the legal profession particularly litigation requires similar skill sets?

ZA: I do, certainly. I mean, I don’t think they are identical, but there is more overlap than people might appreciate just on first blush. I think that one of the things that all actors have to do in any given theme and under any arch of any part is follow through on an objective. And that is when you’re in a scene, and you’re playing that scene, you want something out of the other person or out of the event, and everything you do is kind of funneled through that objective, whether you go about it directly, whether you go about it indirectly, whether you go about it in a covert way. As a lawyer, you also follow objectives. You have your instructions from your client, you have an objective when you’re in court, so in that sense, it’s similar. Also, of course, when you’re a litigator, and you’re standing in front of a judge or a jury – I haven’t done a jury trial yet, and I think they are less common in Canada than in the United States – but if I was so fortunate to be in front of a jury, you have to communicate, you have to connect, you have to appreciate how your argument, how your evidence, is landing, with the judge or your audience. So, in that sense, that is very analogous to an actor being on stage or having a sense of the audience behind the camera. You have to have that sense as to how this is registering with your audience. . . . [A]s an artist and an actor, you are maybe, and this is more philosophical, if you permit me, but I think you’re a little bit more on the outside of things, kind of commenting on how things are happening, and whereas a lawyer, you kind of feel closer to sort of the center of deals and policy and the messy stuff . . . . So, as an actor, you’re looking at it, observing and commenting on it, whereas a lawyer, I think, you’re a little bit closer to the nub of it.

JD: In 1993, you played Robert De Niro’s son in This Boy’s Life. You mentioned a moment ago that in the acting profession you got some life education yourself. What did you learn about acting and life from Robert De Niro at that time?

ZA: Well, he, you know, he’s one of the superstars not only in acting, but he’s like an actor’s actor, if you will.  . . . I was really fortunate. I just watched him, how he was a constant professional, he came in prepared, he was able to, he knew his lines cold, he was able to drift off outside of the script and play whatever came to him. He had a very strong idea of who his character was and wanted to achieve, and it was really impressive to watch him just come on to the set. He was there to do a job, and he was able to carry on long after the scene ended. He was able to sort of carry on in that character and keep ad-libbing . . . . [S]ometimes the director would just let the camera roll and see what came out. So, it was, as an actor who at that point was going on to acting school, I was like a sponge, just kind of watching hanging out when I wasn’t in the scene myself and just see what things I could learn from him.

JD: You were in a holiday movie with John Schneider and Tom Wopat that was not a Dukes of Hazard related project. How did that come to be?

ZA: Well, that was the movie of the week that was shooting in Vancouver. It was “Christmas Comes To Willow Creek,” I believe that’s the name of it, and I’m not sure the background of it, or how it came to be, but I imagine that it was a vehicle for Mr. Schneider and Wopat to reprise their role of brothers even though they weren’t the “Dukes of Hazard” brothers but they were brothers in the movie. . . . [A]gain, I was fortunate enough to be a young actor in Vancouver that was sort of – that was kinda of my – I had a series of parts where I was the angry, young man and it was all about the relationship with the father, and I would always rebel against my father, and Tom Wopat was my father, and he kind of handcuffed me to the truck and took me on this journey we were going. I think we were going to Alaska, and so he handcuffed me to this truck, so I was stuck in the truck, and I didn’t want to be there. And so that was the feature of our relationship throughout that movie, and of course, it’s a Christmas movie, so it all ended well. That was a ton of fun. I would say I have very fond memories of working with those guys. And I was in high school then in Vancouver, so that was a nice break from high school and going out and hanging around a set for four weeks with those guys was a lot of fun.

JD: Getting back to “The X-Files,” of the episodes in which you appeared, which one was your favorite, and why?

ZA: Well, I think that the pilot was, just because of what it went on to become, and for those reasons that I gave earlier on that, there was a real buzz on the set initially in the pilot, and I played an abductee who abducts others and offers them to the light above. It was a complicated character, so I mean, he kind of comes out of that and is interviewed at the end so there’s levels of a sense of guilt of what he had done, a level of anger of you know of being abducted, of course, and a sense of vulnerability of how his body and being was taken over so that was kind of a complex, and it’s obvious that I didn’t have personal experience with, but I could relate to all those different elements of it and try to put it together in the character. So it was probably the pilot episode, although, of course, I was very happy to go back and play this, they say the Terminator 2 role, where I can’t be killed and can take all sorts of different shapes.

JD: Well when you came back and became the sort of transformed alien assassin, after that one scene in the “Deadalive” episode, were you ever able to eat strawberry jam again?

ZA: [Laughter] . . .  I didn’t take that home with me, so to speak.

Abnormal Interviews: Trial By Jury and Mistrial Movie Director Heywood Gould

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Today, Abnormal Use continues its series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which this site will conduct interviews with law professors, practitioners, and makers of legal-themed pop culture. For the latest installment, we turn to Heywood Gould, director and co-writer of the film Trial by Jury, which was released way, way back in 1994. Gould is well known in Hollywood, having directed Mistrial and written Cocktail. Any film depicting jury tampering at the hands of a mob boss captivates our attention. Further, today marks the 20th anniversary of the film’s release to theaters on September 9, 1994. Nothing slips past us. To commemorate this special event, we requested that Mr. Gould agree to an interview with us about the making of the film, and he was kind enough to grant that request. Without further ado, the interview is as follows.

NICK FARR: Looking back 20 years now, what are your thoughts on Trial By Jury and how it was received as a legal drama?

HEYWOOD GOULD: Well, I mean, it was received harshly. And I think the main reason was because of the premise of the movie being that a racketeer can buy himself or can buy a jury and corrupt a jury. People did not want to think that could happen . . . The movie is based on a real life occurrence in which [John] Gotti corrupted a jury in one of his jury trials which led to a mistrial. That’s how he got the name “Teflon Don.” One of the reasons in this case was because he had corrupted the jury. So people don’t want to entertain the idea that this can happen. So there was a lot of disbelief expressed that this could ever happen here and so forth and so on. The movie itself – the actual movie got a great response. But people felt – people were upset. They were disturbed by the idea that this could happen.

NF: What type of feedback have you received from lawyers, specifically, on how the film has resonated with them?

HG: Well, you know, that’s interesting because a lot of people didn’t know that I knew – it wasn’t a secret – but they didn’t know that I knew that this had happened during the Gotti trial. And so, I’ve gotten a lot of response from lawyers who say, well you really – how do you know the way the system really operates? This was more in response and reaction to the idea that the DA would use a criminal to testify on his behalf and that the DA would kind of trap another criminal to testify. They said, “How do you know how well the system works?” “This is how the system works,” they said, and “How do you know that?” And I’ve been a reporter, and I’ve covered a lot of trials, and I don’t know, it kind of comes by osmosis in a way. But they did react saying that I demonstrated a lot of inside knowledge of the way these trials really work.

NF: What about any kind of feedback from anybody that has ever experienced jury duty and how the film resonates from their own experience?

HG: Well, a lot of people – and I’ve been on jury duty twice – a lot of people could relate to the dynamics and the way some people take over a jury room and the way some people will get stubborn. A lot of people responded that this is the kind of experience that they had had.

NF: You co-wrote and directed the film. Can you tell us about that transition from putting pen to paper and then making it come to life on screen?

HG: Well, you kick the writer off the set. That’s it, get out of here. Stop arguing if it doesn’t work. We’re going to try to streamline the movie, and we’re going to be more responsive to the actors’ portrayal and what they bring to it and let them contribute because it’s their movie, as well, whether you like it or not. You kind of become – you put another hat on, and you kick the writer’s hat off, and you look at the script as objectively as you can. Not as something that you wrote.

NF: What efforts were taken to adequately depict the criminal process on set?

HG: I had a friend of mine who’s a lawyer. Other than that, I covered trials as a reporter for the New York Post. . . .  I tried to be very scrupulous about the cross-examination technique of the lawyers and the general technique of a criminal trial [and] keep that as correct as possible so that it would reflect a real trial.

NF: What do you think makes a realistic courtroom as a good backdrop as a drama?

HG: Anybody who’s ever attended a trial, it’s the highest drama in the world. It’s the most dramatic kind of public spectacle that you can think of, and it covers really every aspect of human life. . . . It’s high drama. One of my favorite things to do as a reporter was to cover trials, and what I really liked to do the best when I didn’t have a particular trial to cover was just wander through the courts and just wander into a courtroom and see what was going on that day in that courtroom. . . . I’ve never been to a boring trial or a trial that wasn’t extremely dramatic to me because of what’s at stake.

NF: This movie came out at an interesting time. One of the most famous criminal trials at least in recent memory was the O.J. Simpson trial. That was obviously very well publicized. This movie came out a couple of months after the famous white Bronco chase and then maybe about a year before his trial. Did you see any following of people going back and re-watching a movie like this in the wake of this general population interest in the criminal process?

HG: Yeah, I did, and I also felt a little bit – and I hate to say this – I don’t mean to say it but it did happen – a little bit of vindication for some people when they saw how shaky the justice system could be. Because it was pretty shaky in that trial, that’s for sure. And people say, “Well gosh, maybe you were closer to the truth than we thought.” And I said, “Yeah, it can happen.” I said, “Yeah, I got a lot of response – positive responses for the picture to stick around all these years.” People are still watching it.

NF: Trial By Jury’s protagonist, Valerie (Joanne Whalley), she gets summoned for jury duty, decides to fulfill her civic duty, and then finds herself getting blackmailed by the mob to return a not guilty verdict in the trial of the mob boss. So after going through this type of experience, how do you think Valerie would feel about the two schools of thought we always hear about jury duty: the first one is that it’s a civic responsibility and the second one that no one should be judged by twelve people who aren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty?

HG: Well, first of all, it is your civic duty, and I just completed a trial as a juror – my second time – and, of course, I don’t want to get out of it. I mean, I hope – this trial ran for a little bit more than I would have liked, but the truth is that I usually found juries make very good decisions. At least I can always say that the jury always makes the decision that I agree with so that might not be the best one, but I found that juries take the job very seriously and that they deliberate. The jury I was on was out for three days arguing about what defendants should get an equal – a sentence – because one had done more than the other. Stuff like that. I’m a big fan of the truth. . . . In New York state, I don’t know what the other rules are, but it’s pretty hard to get out of it. They promise you that it’ll be a short trial, and they show you a little video beforehand, and you kinda get a little inspired, and you want to go. People on my jury – they were very much involved with their lives, and they were on their cell phones before court convened. But once the trial started, they were into it. As a matter of fact one guy, a young guy, after all this yelling – we had some serious disputes in our jury – he got up and said, “Wow, this is great, this is the way the system works.”

NF: Why didn’t Valerie do more to let the judge or the district attorney, Daniel Graham (Gabriel Byrne), know what was going on?

HG: Why didn’t she? She’s frightened. . . . She can’t be convinced that the system will protect her. Somehow, she would cooperate, she would not be protected by the system. And that her kid will be killed or she’ll be killed. She believes this. And there was – and probably still is – there was a time when people thought, actually more so than before, that the government can’t protect them and that the system can’t protect them.

NF: The DA had a difficult task ahead of him, trying to prosecute a mob boss under these circumstances. What does the film say about kind of a job of a prosecutor in criminal matters?

HG: Well, you usually have to use a crook to catch a crook. You have to convince the jury that that’s a legitimate thing to do. And in order to convince the jury, your witness, although your witness might be a criminal on trial for himself, has to be plausible. You have to make his testimony plausible. That’s a real challenge. If you’re going to have a tainted witness, you have to somehow make that witness seem credible to the jury. That’s hard.

NF: What does the film say about the constitutional right to a trial by jury?

HG: I think the greatest document we have is our Constitution. I think that’s what makes us unique and even the protections that are given to the bad guy in this movie are necessary. I think people who have drawn other conclusions, by the way – interesting question that you ask – but a lot of people have said, “Are you saying that the Constitution gives too much protection to people?” and I’m saying, “Not if you’re on trial.” I think it’s – you’re going to have an occasional miscarriage of judgment that you have in this movie. That can’t be helped, but overall, you’re lucky to have a constitution to protect you.

NF: What are your thoughts on the comparisons between Trial By Jury and The Juror which was released two years later in 1996?

HG: That has continued to be a mystery to me. I don’t know how it happened or what happened. A lot of people have told me that one of the explanations is that people who had our script didn’t think the movie was going to be made so they felt free to use certain parts of it for their movie. I don’t know if that’s true or not. The Juror is almost a carbon copy with a couple of little variations of our movie. I don’t know how that came about. I really don’t. I want to be fair to the people. I want to say that they also thought they had the same idea that we did when they saw how the jury had been manipulated in the Gotti case. I don’t know how that happened.

NF: We are a bit premature in that Mistrial’s 20 year anniversary won’t take place until 2016. But I have to ask, what was the inspiration for the story and the frustrations of having good evidence and not being able to get it introduced?

HG: This was kind of a “what if” kinda situation. I felt that many times as a reporter watching trials guys have gotten off because of technicalities or because of a good lawyer or legal technicalities. I just tried to imagine what it would be like for a cop whose case was going up in smoke . . . I just tried to put myself in the place of a cop whose life has been destroyed by a series of events which he didn’t have that much control over. What would happen to him?

BONUS QUESTION: Looking back, can you think of a better job than that of Brian Flanagan (Tom Cruise) at the tiki bar in Jamaica from Cocktail?

HG: No, I can’t. I had that job for one year myself. I was a bartender. I used to bartend for eleven years before the movie. That’s pretty much my experience as a bartender. I worked – well I won’t tell you the name of the island – but I worked at a place very much like the Tiki Bar, and it was a fun time I have to say. It was great. It’s the greatest job ever. And you have some money in the bank as opposed to – when Brian Flanagan is 50 years old, well he’d get fired, most of my friends who were bartenders up here in New York got to be 50, 55 they were in bad shape in any way you can think of.

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BIOGRAPHY: Born in the Bronx, New York, Heywood Gould is a screenwriter, journalist, novelist, and film director. He penned the screenplays for many films including Cocktail and directed such films as One Good Cop, Trial by Jury, Mistrial and Double Bang.

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Abnormal Interviews: Lawyer and She-Hulk Comic Book Writer Charles Soule

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Today, Abnormal Use continues its series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which this site will conduct interviews with law professors, practitioners and makers of legal themed popular culture. For the latest installment, we turn to Charles Soule, the writer of the current She-Hulk comic book series. As we have noted once and again (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), the Marvel comic book superhero She-Hulk is, in her regular life, a practicing lawyer. As you also may know, we here at Abnormal Use like to write about legally themed comic books, and occasionally, we have been fortunate enough to interview creators of them. Back in 2011, we interviewed Mark Waid, the writer of Marvel’s Daredevil, a series which features a lawyer superhero. Last year, we interviewed Ryan Ferrier, creator of the series Tiger Lawyer. So, today, we are very pleased to run an interview with Charles Soule who, in addition to being a prolific comic book writer, is also a practicing lawyer. How about that? Without further ado, the interview is as follows:

She-Hulk has two full time jobs: lawyer and superhero. But, as an attorney and comic book writer, so do you. What are the challenges facing a practicing attorney who also writes comic books? How do you find the time to engage in both professions?

It can be difficult, honestly. As I type this, I’m in my office thinking about various client issues I need to handle, as well as some writing work that will kick in the very moment I’m done. I can say that law school and subsequent legal practice (both at the firms I worked for initially and in my own solo practice) gave me a pretty solid set of time management skills. I’m used to handling pretty significant workloads and self-motivating. It’s certainly very, very intense right now, but as I’ve told folks who have asked me this question in the past (I get it a lot), I’m writing incredibly fun projects using some of my favorite characters, building an audience, and running my own successful business at the same time. There’s a lot of work, but I wouldn’t characterize it as a chore.

How did you come to write comic books as a practicing lawyer?

In a nutshell, I’ve always been creatively-oriented. I’ve been playing music since I was very young, and I worked regularly as a professional musician for years before and during law school. Some of that continued afterwards, but it became apparent that I might want to find another creative outlet that I could do more easily around the weird, unpredictable hours of being a young attorney. Writing seemed obvious, and I started my first novel during my post-bar vacation. Novels were/are fun, but also very time-consuming, and after a few years of working in that field, I tried my hand at comics, which I had always loved. Cut through about a decade of near-constant work, networking and good times, and here we are today.

How do the deadlines in the comic book industry compare to those in the legal field, and how do you prefer to handle them simultaneously?

Deadlines are deadlines. I think the most important thing about deadlines is just to know they exist. If I know they’re there, I can handle them – I can’t recall a situation where I couldn’t make things work if I had a little bit of time to adjust. There are a lot of deadlines these days, big and small, but I think it helps that it’s my own practice (so I’m the boss…) and that I’ve learned how to manage my time on the comics end really well. I wouldn’t mind fewer deadlines – who wouldn’t – but I’m on it.

shprOne of the most interesting sequences in She-Hulk #1 is the associate performance review when She-Hulk meets the partners at her firm. What was the inspiration for that part of the narrative?

It’s taken very much in spirit from associate reviews either I had or friends of mine had. What you realize as a young associate at a big firm is that you’re courted to join, but once the honeymoon period is over (right around the time of those first reviews), it becomes clear that the goals of the partners do not necessarily align with those of the young associates. That’s totally fine, mind you – it’s a business – but it can be a bit of a rude awakening.

What has been the reaction of your fellow lawyers to the legal scenes in your run on She-Hulk?

So far, all good! I was interviewed by the ABA Journal, which was a fun little professional milestone. I get the occasional quibble over details from lawyers, but it’s mostly pretty relaxed. Attorneys seem pretty pleased to see a lawyer represented even somewhat realistically in comics, even if I mess up the occasional practice point. Fortunately, I can always rely on one line: “The laws are different in the Marvel Universe.” Easy.

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In issue 4, She-Hulk meets briefly with Marvel’s other famous lawyer super-hero, Daredevil, who remarks that it’s odd the two have never faced each other in court. First off, is that foreshadowing, and secondly, what specific challenges face those who write about lawyer superheroes as opposed to non-lawyer characters?

Foreshadowing indeed. By this point, it’s out in the world that She-Hulk and Daredevil finally will face each other in the courtroom over issues 8-10 of the series. They’re working on a wrongful death lawsuit out in California. It’s been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever written – you can imagine that writing a case involving two brilliant lawyers, where both have to come off as brilliant lawyers, who can’t be shown in a non-heroic light . . . tricky. But fun! I’m very proud of that storyline.

Throughout your run on the series, we’ve seen immigration hearings, injunctive relief proceedings, daily life at law firms, and even the face of pleadings, all of which are unique to the medium. How do you determine which legal issues appear in your work?

It’s really about areas that I feel like I can write with some authority, or that I’m interested in researching. I’ve always liked admiralty, for example, as well as international law. I’m experienced with immigration, contracts, IP, licensing, transactional work . . . so all that stuff finds its way in. I’m not very experienced with litigation, but that’s the sort of thing people visualize when they think about a legal drama, so I can’t get away from courtroom scenes. I also have a ton of experience (obviously) with running my own small practice, which is something I bring into She-Hulk in every issue.

What is the best way to portray legal issues and proceedings to non-lawyers in a visual medium?

You would have to ask Javier Pulido, Muntsa Vicente, Clayton Cowles, Ron Wimberly and Rico Renzi, since they’re the artists who have to make my chatty scripts work. I’m constantly amazed and impressed by their ability to make ordinary conversations pop. She-Hulk wouldn’t work without the art team, there’s no doubt about it.

BONUS QUESTIONS:

Who is your favorite fictional lawyer, and why?

It’s hard to beat She-Hulk for me at the moment, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Lionel Hutz, and Saul Goodman was an amazing character among amazing characters in “Breaking Bad.” I guess I like my fictional lawyers to be on the exaggerated side.

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What is the first comic book you remember reading, and how did you comic across it?

Fantastic Four #224 – “Prisoners of the Space Gods.” They get taken prisoner by a bunch of Asgardians (which will happen). My dad bought it for me in the drugstore one day – he got them for my siblings and me to keep us quiet in the backseat – it totally worked.

What do you think is the best pop culture depiction of law school?

You know, law school doesn’t get a lot of representation, at least that I’m aware of. One L, probably?

Are there any legal or comic book blogs that you enjoy that you might recommend to our readers?

Other than this one? I wouldn’t dare.

BIOGRAPHY: Charles Soule, a graduate of Columbia Law School, has been practicing law for over a decade. Prior to starting his own practice (The Law Offices of Charles D. Soule, PLLC in Brooklyn), he worked in the New York offices of Ropes & Gray, LLP. He is a member of the New York State Bar and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, with a concentration in Chinese language and history. You can follow him on Twitter here.

TV Review: FX’s “Partners,” Starring Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence

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Tonight, FX airs the first two episodes of “Partners,” a new legally themed sitcom starring television veterans Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence as two unlikely law partners. Created by Robert L. Boyett and Robert Horn, “Partners” looks and feels like a tired sitcom of the eighties or nineties made modern only by occasional references to Twitter. Although the laugh track did its best to assist, “Partners” is not particularly amusing, a fault which must be assigned to the writers, as both Grammer and Lawrence have generated huge laughs in the past with much better material. Further, as you might imagine, “Partners” does not go out of its way to accurately depict the legal profession or the daily working lives of practicing attorneys. In the end, it’s a silly premise with a silly execution. Warning: Spoilers abound in the review below.

Grammer plays Allen Braddock, a 20 year veteran lawyer fired by his father from a prestigious Chicago law firm. We are told that he practices civil, criminal, and corporate law (and apparently, family law, as well, as we see) with a “success rate” of “89 percent.” His employment prospects are now grim,  as he is told by a former colleague that his father has poisoned the minds of the local bar such that “no respectable firm will hire [him] now.” Shortly after his termination, Braddock is summoned to a local courtroom by a judge seeking to sanction him for his abhorrent conduct during a past trial (which, incidentally, he won). The judge – who accuses Braddock of “misdirection, hiding behind technicalities, and something that was a very close cousin of jury tampering” – sanctions him by assigning him a handful of pro bono cases.

Meanwhile, Lawrence plays Marcus Jackson, an idealistic solo practitioner and community activist who has fallen on hard times. Now living with his mother and facing a devastating divorce, Jackson blames himself for the end of his twenty-two year marriage in part because he spends too much time at his law office. Choosing to represent himself in the divorce proceeding, Jackson has adopted a defeatist attitude and agreed to a settlement in which his wife will receive “70 percent of [his] assets and half of [his] law practice.” Appearing in court immediately after Braddock’s sanctions hearing, Jackson earns the sympathy of the judge, who continues the divorce hearing so that Jackson might obtain a more favorable settlement. After the hearing, Braddock and Jackson meet, and ultimately, Jackson agrees to retain Braddock to represent him in the divorce if Jackson will handle to pro bono cases previously assigned to Braddock. Thus begins the fractious relationship which ultimately leads to the two lawyers becoming law partners at the episode’s conclusion.

Much of the narrative is dedicated to Braddock and Jackson purportedly learning from each other as they trade insults about each other’s various differences. Rounding out the cast are Rory O’Malley as paralegal and law student Michael, Telma Hopkins as Jackson’s mother, Ruth, Edi Patterson as Jackson’s ambitious office manager and investigator Veronica, Danièle Watts as Jackson’s daughter, Laura, and McKaley Miller as Braddock’s annoyingly bratty step-daughter, Lizzie. At least in the first two episodes, we are not introduced to Jackson’s estranged wife or Braddock’s lawyer father.

Directed by Grammar, the pilot (titled “They Come Together”) primarily sets the stage to bring the two protagonists together. After Braddock agrees to represent Jackson, the two lawyers surreptitiously visit the residential quarters of a local church where Jackson’s wife volunteers and now live. (Some students of the law might call this “trespass.”).  They ultimately find themselves in Jackson’s wife’s bedroom – breaking and entering, anyone? – where they discover evidence of her infidelity. Thus, armed with this new evidence of an extramarital affair, Braddock is able to secure for Jackson a more equitable divorce settlement (and convince Jackson to move on from the experience). No one seems to question how the evidence was obtained or whether it was done so properly.

Directed by Joe Regalbuto, the second episode, “Let’s Have A Simple Gwedding,” centers around Braddock and Jackson’s pro bono assistance of a gay couple whose purportedly elite wedding planner has provided substandard services. Rather than crafting a demand letter threatening to sue the wedding planner for deceptive trade practices, Braddock and Jackson pose as a gay couple and “stage a fake consultation” in an effort to secure evidence of the wedding planner’s wrongdoing. When that approach fails, the two stage a fake wedding reception during which they find evidence that the wedding planner is “repurposing funeral arrangements,” recycling airplane food,  and pouring wine-in-a-box into far more expensive bottles. The lawyers obtain a refund for their clients and inform them that the wedding planner now faces “six months behind bars.” Apparently, all of this effort is provided by the firm at no cost to the clients, despite the fact that the clear evidence of fraud on the part of the wedding planner might lead to punitive damages or the recovery of attorneys fees under various deceptive trade practices and/or consumer protection statutes. So much for Braddock’s ability to generate revenue for the new firm!

Sadly, “Partners” appears to be another hackeyned sitcom with all the familiar tropes. Further, the writers and producers of “Partners” seem only to know of the practice of law from other bad televisions. Back in 2013, we here at Abnormal Use wondered why television programs so rarely depict discovery in civil litigation. In so doing, we speculated:

Is it that the writers of legal television shows themselves only know of our industry from other bad legal television shows?  Is it that the a program’s advisers do not have the breadth of legal experience to provide such anecdotes to the production?  Or is it that the traditional formula of a legal TV show is so well established and ossified that any deviation therefrom would simply require extra effort?

Really, both “cases’ depicted in the the episodes – Jackson’s divorce action and the potential claims against the wedding planner – cry out to be litigated. However, the writers prefer to treat the litigators as would-be detectives venturing out into the world to gather clues under false pretenses rather than as lawyers developing facts through a formal investigation or the discovery process. This is especially curious as the show has gone to great lengths to establish the existence of a competent non-lawyer investigator at the firm.

As a consequence, lawyer viewers may groan often as the narrative unfolds.

A few other notes on the show’s depiction of the legal process and the practice of law:

There are many, many “Lawyer As Witness” issues, meaning that Jackson and Braddock should be disqualified from representing their clients after becoming fact witnesses themselves.

How does Braddock determine that his “success rate” is “89 percent,” particularly when he practices across some many different areas?

How cynical a show is this that the judge “sanctions” Braddock by assigning him pro bono cases, as if pro bono cases exist as a deterrent to bad behavior?

The terms of Jackson’s divorce settlement made us wonder whether non-lawyers in Illinois are permitted to own a percentage of a law practice.

Shortly after Braddock and Jackson meet, Braddock advises: “It’s never a good idea to represent yourself in a personal case, you know that. You should have had another lawyer representing you all along. You’re too emotionally involved.” That’s actually good advice, but Braddock himself violating that very rule by appearing on his own behalf at a hearing during which he was sanctioned for misconduct.

“’Too far’ is how you win cases,” quips Braddock after Jackson advises him that is going, well, “too far.” And we wonder why litigation is so costly . . . .

The first two episodes of “Partners” air tonight on the FX Network at 9:00 p.m.

Federal Lawsuit Alleges Duck Dynasty Stole Plaintiff’s Favorite “Color”

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At this point, everyone knows A&E’s hit television show “Duck Dynasty.”  The characters on the program have coined various catch phrases, including Uncle Si Robertson’s declaration that “My Favorite Color is Camo.”  The popularity of this quip led A&E to produce a line of camouflage clothing marketed to the show’s fans – a move which apparently generated “$400 million in revenues from sales of Duck Dynasty branded merchandise at Wal-Mart in 2013 alone,” according to a new lawsuit filed against the network.  The total revenues from the Duck Dynasty brand are unclear, but A&E reportedly also sells the clothing through merchandising deals with Sears, Kohl’s, Sports Authority, and Target. A Florida retail company, Hajn, alleges that it came up with the “My Favorite Color is Camo” trademark and began selling merchandise using the trademark in 2011, a year before “Duck Dynasty” first aired.  So, naturally, it has showed up to “quack some skulls in the duck call room,” legally speaking. Hajn sent a cease and desist letter to A&E asking that it stop selling the merchandise, but apparently the sales continued. So, on July 22, Hajn filed suit for willful trademark infringement and unfair competition in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Florida to prevent A&E from using its purported trademark. A&E has apparently declined to comment, and as of press time, it has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit.

We will say that we were impressed with the color images of advertisements – and even tweets – embedded into the complaint. Longtime readers may recall that back in 2010 we here at Abnormal Use remarked:

While it is customary to attach photographs as exhibits to memoranda in support of motions, rarely does the attorney actually embed the photograph into the pleading itself. (This is changing for the better, though.).

Whatever the case, we should all be patient to see where this one goes, or as Uncle Si says “America, everybody is in too big a rush. Lay back, take a sip of tea, mow a little grass. Then if you get tired, take a nap.

The suit is Hajn, LLC v. A&E Television Networks, LLC, 2:14-cv-14291-KAM (S.D. Fla).

Abnormal Interviews: James Daily of The Law and the Multiverse Blog

Today, we here at Abnormal Use once again continues our series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which we conduct brief interviews with law professors, practitioners, and other commentators in the field. For the latest installment, we turn once more to lawyer blogger James Daily of The Law and the Multiverse blog, an incredibly fun site in which the authors apply the laws of the real world to the exploits of comic book superheroes. You might recall that we interviewed James and his co-blogger Ryan Davidson way, way back in March 2011. James was kind enough to submit to a second interview with Abnormal Use, which is as follows:

JIM DEDMAN:  We first interviewed you in March 2011, just a few months after the blog debuted in late 2010. In the years since, what is the most important lesson you have learned as a legal blogger?

JAMES DAILY: I’ve learned a few different lessons, but it’s hard to say which is the most important.  One thing I’ve learned is to change it up from time to time.  Some of my most popular posts have been about unusual topics, such as the contract from The Hobbit.  They’ve also been a nice change of pace for me.

DEDMAN: You’ve achieved an immense amount of attention as a result of the site, including interviews with national publications, a book deal, and even your own Wikipedia entry. What do you feel has been your biggest success with the site?

DAILY:  All of that attention has been a continual surprise.  I think the biggest success has been that I still get more questions from readers than I have time to fully answer.  It underscores the point that there is still tons of material to write about, and as an attorney it’s always a great feeling when someone wants to know your opinion about a legal issue, even a fictional one.

DEDMAN: As the blog approaches its fourth anniversary, what challenges do you face in continuing to find new material for the site?

DAILY:  The main challenge I have is finding the time to write, not finding new material.  I have a backlog of dozens of questions from readers, and I’ve fallen behind on Daredevil and She-Hulk, to say nothing of less law-focused comics.  The creativity and breadth of questions from readers never ceases to amaze me.  They often come up with better post ideas than I could.

DEDMAN:  Since the blog came into being in 2010, what has been your favorite reaction from a reader to the site and its mission?

DAILY:  I have received quite a few letters from law students, lawyers, and comic book fans that include some version of “I’m so glad I found the site.  I thought I was the only one that thought about this kind of stuff.”  It validates the thesis of the site, and I think it’s great that the blog has contributed to a community of sites centered around discussing the law and pop culture.

DEDMAN: As you know, there is a burgeoning movement of “real” superheroes out there making news in some jurisdictions. What have you learned from writing the site that might be of benefit to them?

DAILY: The main thing I’ve learned is that it would be very, very difficult to be a comic book-type superhero that stays within the bounds of the law and yet still does more than act as a member of the neighborhood watch.  The law has evolved to frown on “self-help”, with the possible exception of modern stand-your-ground and castle laws.  It’s a legal tightrope act without a net, and I don’t recommend it.

DEDMAN:  Is service by publication the only way to serve a superhero or villain with a lawsuit?

DAILY:  It depends on the superhero or villain.  Some superheroes have very public identities (e.g. Jennifer Walters/She-Hulk and Tony Stark/Iron Man).  Even some villains act more-or-less in the open, such as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin.  And of course even a villain such as The Joker could be served during one his many (brief) stays in Arkham Asylum.  Even more reclusive characters such as Batman and Superman have accepted process (subpoenas anyway) at the Justice League headquarters on the Moon.  A really aggressive process server might stage a crime (with a “victim” who was in on it) in order to attract a superhero’s attention.  That might make for an interesting comic book story!

BONUS QUESTIONS:

DEDMAN:  What has been your favorite post since you founded the site?

DAILY:  I have trouble picking my favorite anything, but I really enjoyed the opportunity to interview Mark Waid (writer of Daredevil, among many other things) and Daniel Reeve, the artist who created the contract for The Hobbit movies.  That was definitely something made possible by the success of the rest of the blog.  I enjoyed being able to take a peek behind the scenes and hopefully ask questions that my audience would want to know about that wouldn’t be asked elsewhere.  Since you’ve also interviewed Mark Waid (and a host of other interesting folks), I think you can understand the appeal.

DEDMAN:  What is your favorite superhero movie?

DAILY:  Another favorites question!  I’m going to punt and say the Christopher Nolan Batman movies and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  But honestly the MCU movies have been so consistently good that it’s tempting to say all of them.  I’ve generally enjoyed them more than the Spider-Man and X-Men movies, although The Wolverine and Days of Future Past were quite good.

DEDMAN:  What do you feel is the most disastrous depiction of the legal process in popular culture, and why?

DAILY:  That’s a tricky one.  Disastrously wrong or disastrous for its negative impact on society’s perception of lawyers or the legal process?  I tend to shy away from writing about stories that get the law laughably wrong, since it’s not much fun to beat up on someone’s creative work, especially when legal accuracy is rarely central to the plot.  I’ll leave that to the experts.

BIOGRAPHY:  James Daily is an attorney licensed in Missouri and a graduate of the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. He is also registered to practice before the United States Patent and Trademark Office. He and Ryan Davidson started the Law and the Multiverse blog in November of 2010. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Four Decades After Its Release, “Stairway To Heaven” May Be Litigated

We here at Abnormal Use love music, especially the classics of the good ‘ole days.  Understandably then, our attention has been drawn to the recent controversy involving Led Zeppelin’s 1971 hit “Stairway to Heaven.”  To quickly summarize, the estate of Randy California of the band Spirit has recently claimed that Zeppelin plagiarized his song “Taurus”—or more specifically, the universally recognized opening chords that introduce the Zeppelin smash hit.

We are surprised by the claim and likely pending lawsuit for several reasons.  First, “Stairway to Heaven” was released in 1971. Again, 1971!  Can California’s estate bring this claim more than forty years after the alleged rip-off?  According to the Supremes (get it?), yes.  The United States Supreme Court recently held that no delay is too long when it comes to bringing a copyright infringement suit.  Just as an FYI, the case involved a dispute over the screenplay of Raging Bull.  Classics overload in this blog post.  In any event, the decision confirms that yes, California’s estate can bring a lawsuit up to three years after an infringing act, which essentially sets up a rolling cause of action.   Led Zeppelin is gearing up to release a new version of its iconic album Led Zeppelin IV, which provides the estate with its infringing act.

Secondly, where do we draw the line between paying tribute and flat-out plagiarism?  They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  The problem may lie by Zeppelin’s failure to give the proverbial “shout out” to California or Spirit.  According to Forbes, the band has a long history of appropriating songs and chords without crediting the original artists.  In fact, the band has settled or defended copyright cases over “The Lemon Song,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” and “Dazed and Confused.”  Perhaps Aloe Blacc’s track “The Man” provides guidance.   The song clearly pays homage to Elton John’s hit “Your Song” in its chorus, which repeats “you can tell everybody” in a similar fashion to John’s.   However, on his production company’s website, Blacc and the producers have provided the credits for the song, including crediting an interpolation from “Your Song” by John.  For his part, Sir Elton is loving Blacc’s track, noting that the influence means his music is still relevant and it gave him a “big kick up the bum.”  What a cheeky fellow.

We will see how this story develops in light of Zeppelin’s upcoming album release.  In any event, it is undeniable that the opening riff to “Stairway to Heaven” is iconic, often-emulated, and frankly, maybe even overplayed?  Party on, Wayne.