Abnormal Interviews: Michael Sardo, Producer of USA’s "Fairly Legal," Talks Mediation

Believe it or not, we here at Abnormal Use scored an interview with Hollywood writer and producer Michael Sardo (pictured above), whose new show “Fairly Legal,” debuts Thursday night on the USA Network at 10/9 Central. The show stars Sarah Shahi (pictured below) as Kate Reed, a lawyer turned mediator, whose spirited idealism pits her against the staid conventions of life at her late father’s San Francisco law firm. So weary of the legal profession is she that she actually resigned from the bar. However, she has decided to remain a mediator at the firm and work alongside Lauren Reed (Virginia Williams) who, in addition to being the firm’s by-the-book managing partner, is also Kate’s father’s young widow. Further complicating Kate’s life is her relationship with her ex-husband, Justin Patrick (Michael Trucco), an assistant district attorney who somehow finds himself embroiled in many of Kate’s many mediation antics.

Sardo was kind enough to grant us an interview earlier this month about the show and his philosophy on alternative dispute resolution in general.

DEDMAN: You’ve referred to “Fairly Legal” as “our little anti-law law show,” and I wanted to ask you first, how is it different from other legal shows?

SARDO: Well, it’s different in several ways. It doesn’t take place in the courts. One of the most important scenes in the pilot is Kate being thrown out of a court. She’s the thing that doesn’t belong. Kate Reed, the lead character, is a former lawyer who was frustrated with the law and who resigned from the bar and becomes a mediator. She tries to find a more direct way to solve conflict. Kate’s point of view is that the artifice of the law is this sort of standardization that’s needed to create laws that fit all levels of society [that] actually leaves out some of the most important parts, and she wanted to get to those most important parts. At the same time, in the pilot, she realizes that you often need lawyers and the law because if everyone was a mediator, that way lies anarchy. But as the balance has shifted to us being such a litigious, law-filled society, she is someone who moves towards the opening up of another way for some conflicts to be resolved.

DEDMAN: Now, if I were a client of the Reed & Reed law firm, why would I want Kate Reed to mediate my dispute?

SARDO: Because she would understand the cost, both physical and mental, of going to court, what you could possibly win, but also what it would cost you, and what you could possibly lose, and so she would first propose a more direct streamlined solution which involves hearing what you think, and what the injured party or the complaining party thinks, would be the solution. . . . [N]owhere does the show say we don’t need laws or lawyers. . . . [S]ay you go into a courtroom, [and] I have a disagreement with Jim Dedman, who’s my neighbor – so instead of talking to him, I go to court. . . . . I don’t talk to anyone. My lawyer talks for me. His lawyer talks for him. And then, a judge, who’s sort of dad or grandpa, tells us what’s going to happen. He doesn’t tell you what’s right or wrong but what the law says is right or wrong. So we kind of give up our rights and our adulthood and sublimate it to these laws, some of which may work, and some of which may not. It’s a system that functions well in some cases and really poorly in others. Kate is someone who takes a more direct approach and . . . puts [people] in a mediation where they get to talk for themselves and propose their own solution.

DEDMAN: You mentioned at the beginning that she is a former lawyer, and at some point in the events prior to the pilot, she surrenders her law license as an attorney to become a mediator. Why does she take that approach?

SARDO: A lot of lawyers who are also mediators . . . [they’re] still a lawyer. [They] can still then also hold what’s happened in a mediation confidential, and then be engaged as the person’s lawyer, and Kate wanted to make a clean break from being a lawyer. But she was still interested in the pursuit of justice and truth. . . . Kate is someone who would cut things off if she didn’t like the way they were going. This is the beginning of her becoming an adult in the sense of saying, “I don’t like some of that, but I do like some of it, and I’m going to stay, I’m going to work at my father’s law firm, but I’m not going to do it the way he does it, and the people around me do it. I’m going to make it my own.” For me, as a writer, what appealed to me about that character was the idea of you taking two people in conflict, you put them in a room, you close the door and you send in someone like Kate – to me that’s inherently interesting drama without any of the other artifice surrounding it I think you’ve got to peel away to get through the drama.

DEDMAN: Some of the promotional materials describe Kate as a “recovering attorney,” and in the pilot, she says that she has “more than a small amount of self-hatred,” and I wanted to ask you if those are connected in any way.

SARDO: [Laughs.] Well, like any of us you know, our work life and personal life are connected. Kate is really well aware of her flaws, and she is someone who can act impulsively, and often will do something that makes whatever she’s dealing with, whether it’s personal or professional, worse, because she acts in the moment, and that’s where the “no small amount of self hatred” comes from. “Recovering attorney” is a line I actually heard from more than one mediator who I talked to who said that’s how they referred to themselves as “recovering attorneys,” and I just thought it was great and was always looking for a way to work it in.

DEDMAN: You once gave an interview a while back in which you said that “the writer’s job is to have a point of view,” and I wanted to ask you, what is the point of view you’re expressing in telling stories about mediation, which is something that is not often depicted on television?

SARDO: My point of view is that anything that’s important to you, you should be as personally involved as possible, and you should let your point of view be known, and you should have part of the solution. Whether you caused the problem, or you’re affected by the problem. And that the less you turn it over to someone else, the better. And in my own experience, just in life, the further things get removed from having some kind of personal contact, [the worse they become.] . . . [Y]ou used to go and get your mortgage from your local banker, and he sized you up, and said, “Can this guy pay this for 30 years?” So what happens when they would bundle this part of 10,000 mortgages? There’s no accountability on either end to what happens in court. They sort of give themselves over to a system, and you hire someone with a knowledge of that system to work it to your advantage. . . . [T]he more that people can get involved themselves and take charge of [and] make their own statement about what they want and need and let that be known and try to work it out, [the better.] It’s still not a perfect system, but [it’s] a better system.

DEDMAN: Now, Kate is an idealist and appears unappreciative of the day-to-day operations of her law firm. Why does she still work for that firm?

SARDO: She gives a speech at the end of the pilot where she acknowledges for the first time out loud what is the advantage of the law and the law firm that you do need both things. To go back to your earlier question, what bothered Kate about the law was that every lawyer that I know has had cases that bothered them. But they had to accept that that’s how the law works. [They] knew that somewhere down the line someone was going to change that or that [there] was a wrongful conviction but the person will eventually get out. It’s that kind of ancillary damage that you have to accept to be a good lawyer, I think. It’s a thing that Kate couldn’t accept. But she knows that you need laws in a society. It’s the situational part of it that she couldn’t look away from – the way laws apply differently to different economic classes and different people have different degrees of lawyers. She couldn’t participate in that system any more, but she wanted to be part of the figuring out of truth and justice part of the system.

DEDMAN: One character that was particularly interesting to me as a lawyer was Lauren, who’s played by Virginia Williams, who is the managing partner of the firm and the foil to Kate. How do you think viewers, or lawyer viewers in particular, will respond to that character?

SARDO: . . . [W]hat I hope, and what Virginia and I have both worked really hard on, is to create a character who is – in the hands of a less gifted actress – would be easily parodied. She seems on the surface to be a trophy wife and kind of a bitch, and I think Virginia has found a way to play Lauren the way it was intended: to be neither of those. She actually had a true love with Kate’s dad, and that’s what bothers Kate, even on the surface. Yes, she’s thirty years younger, and she’s beautiful, but she’s quite a good lawyer, and she’s quite smart, and Lauren and Kate both want similar things. But they’re looking at the world through different facets on the prism. Lauren believes the world works best when the trains run on time, and she’s the person to run them. And she looks at the firm and says, “You know what, Kate, I’m watching out for the clients who are paying us, that’s why you have a job and your assistant has a desk and health benefits, and the lights are on. There is good in what I do, not just that it keeps the building running, but that I’m enforcing the law.” She believes in it, and she believes in the rightness of it, and doesn’t believe that it’s her job to change that. Kate questions everything, and between those two poles, I think they represent the two poles of how you can feel about the law, and I don’t think that it’s a healthy system that functions with just one or the other. I think you need both.

DEDMAN: One interesting thing is that both Kate and Lauren have roles that have traditionally been held by men in the past, both in the legal profession and in television depictions of the legal profession. Will the series explore the challenges that are unique to female mediators and female managing partners in the law?

SARDO: Yes, very much so. You see it in one scene in the pilot in what Lauren faces. . . . [Y]ou see how she has to deal with a very important client of the firm and make a decision as to which way she’s going to take that. Kate will deal with some of those issues, also, because, it’s funny, when you have a lead as attractive as Sarah Shahi, and you want to portray her as very serious about her work, but at the same time, you can’t be oblivious to the fact that she’s gorgeous. So, we made a conscious decision to have characters react to that and react to her as a beautiful woman because she is one. If she was a handsome man, people would react in a certain way, so she will have people react to how she looks. . . . Lauren particularly will have to confront those things in her position because of her visibility as managing partner and the fact that she often has to play hardball within the firm and with other people who are interested in the firm.

DEDMAN: One thing that Kate does in the pilot is show up at the front door of a client’s home and encourage him to do “the right thing.” What happens when her definition of “the right thing” conflicts with her firm’s duty to represent that client who might not want to do “the right thing”?

SARDO: That is the conflict that exists between Lauren and Kate, and I was very interested in that because I think that’s the conflict all of us face in all of our jobs. I think if you’re working at an auto repair place [then] you know that you’re being pushed to find everything that can be fixed because you want a higher bill. Every time I go into Starbucks they say, “Would you like something to eat with that?” [Laughs.] Everyone is trying to increase their billings, and they’ll say it to you whether you’re on a diet or 100 pounds overweight or not interested in a snack. So Kate and Lauren, I think that’s something that in all our professional lives we have to grapple with. . . . Kate had to acknowledge the reality that you have to be conscious of the client, and Lauren is not someone who’s without morals. She will also have to deal with the moral complications of making decisions that are better for the business but worse for overall justice in the world.

DEDMAN: Have you gotten any feedback from practicing mediators about the show?

SARDO: Not yet, but it’s starting to come. I’m going to be talking with some soon. I talked to mediators as I was developing the show about their motivations to become a mediator. A lot of them had been lawyers. And about what are the boundaries of what a mediator can do, and what interested me was how much they all repeated the same thing, which was it’s completely about the personality of the mediator. . . . We’ve tried very hard to stay with some degree of realism of what a mediator could do. Of course, the most colorful, interesting, fun mediator. I think people are starting to see the pilot so I will be hearing from our mediator friends.

DEDMAN: You’ve gotten some good supporting cast members and some guests. I noticed you have Gerald McRaney and Esai Morales and John Ashton and Chris Ellis in the two episodes that I saw. Is there anyone else that we can expect to see in the first couple of episodes?

SARDO: Richard Dean Anderson comes back a couple of times. Gerald McRaney will be on a few. and he’s wonderful. Wonderful to have. Ken Howard is in the pilot. We have – I’m trying to think of anyone else that you would really know. Paul Shultze from “Nurse Jackie” does a great turn for us. He plays Eddie the pharmacist on “Nurse Jackie.” I think those are the ones you would know, I’m sure I’m leaving someone else out and hoping they don’t read Abnormal Use.

DEDMAN: I do have to ask you about the “Battlestar Galactica” connection. Michael Trucco plays the assistant district attorney, Justin Patrick, and Esai Morales plays his boss, the district attorney. Trucco was on “Battlestar Galactica” and Morales was recently on [the “Battlestar Galactica” prequel] “Caprica.” Is that a coincidence in the DA’s office on the show there?

SARDO: [Laughs.] I like that you’re looking deeper than we had time to think when we were casting. We were just looking for the best actors we could find, and the good actors work a lot, and they just happen to be in close proximity to each other, but it was not by design. Some of “Battlestar Caprica” people may want to believe it is.

DEDMAN: . . . [M]y last question to you would be is generally, what do you believe is the chief advantage of mediation as opposed to litigation?

SARDO: Quicker. Cheaper. More satisfying. And more in control of your own destiny.

Incidentally, the quotation we reference in our fifth question to Sardo comes from a 1991 interview he gave to Media Week as a 31-year old writer and recent Emmy nominee. The relevant portion of that interview is as follows:

“One of the biggest problems of TV is that show creators write what they can sell and not what they want to watch. I just write what interests me,” says Michael Sardo, 31, who earned an Emmy nomination for his writing for the “The Tracy Ullman Show” before landing a development deal at Lorimar Television to create half-hour comedies for the networks.

“Most of my ideas don’t sell, because they are not recognizable television,” he says. “In my work, the characters have problems that actual people may have. People keep trying to write things that are already on. Why? You’ve already got one. The writer’s job to me is to have a point of view.”

The same obligation should extend to the networks. “There’s a tendency to homogenize – – to appeal to every kind of audience. Always go for the most intelligent way. Executives seem to talk about this fictional audience that’s moronic. Networks should try to come up with what they see are good shows and not what they think people want to watch.”

Sardo came to Hollywood in 1982 via a blue-collar Bronx childhood and Ivy League education to pay his writing dues. At one point, he even lived out of his car. A spec comedy sketch finally landed on NBC followed by two specials for MTV and the Disney Channel before Sardo wound up on the Tracy Ullman staff.

While he credits shows like Northern Exposure, L.A. Law, and Murphy Brown as exceptions, more often, he says, writers and networks try to go for the quick buck by succumbing to safe story structures, then get to used to the money or typecast as formula writers.

“That’s why you also see such unlikely pairings in sitcoms,” says Sardo. “‘She’s a Jew, he’s a Nazi.’ Come on, would they really be together?”

Karlin, Sue. “The New Producers,” Media Week, October 14, 1991.