July 09, 2016

A TV Lawyer You Might (Finally!) Relate To

Ann Farmer

Halfway through the second season of AMC’s television series Better Call Saul, the character Kimberly Wexler, a whip-smart, four-year associate at the white-shoe law firm Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, falls out of favor with one of the partners and gets demoted to document review. She is sent to a windowless purgatory, where she runs a highlighter across relevant legal data. It’s drudgery. And mind-­numbingly repetitive. But she soldiers on, sometimes for the entire night, in her resolve to hoist herself out of her predicament.

Rather than gaining ground, though, she’s then sent to court to argue a motion that, unbeknownst to her, is unwinnable. When her lawyer boyfriend suggests that she sue the firm for their sorry treatment of her (and he’ll help her), she scoffs at him. Such a move, she says, would be tantamount to career suicide. “You don’t save me,” she tells him, turning back to her mundane chores. “I save me.”

At long last: a television series that strives to get real about the legal profession and doesn’t portray it as glitzy and glamorous with never a dull moment or assignment.

David Segal, a reporter for the New York Times, was among the many critics and bloggers who took particular delight in these scenes and how the show “concerns the tedium and humiliations of life in corporate law, the fate awaiting many law school graduates who are lucky enough to land jobs.

“Obviously, this isn’t true of every law firm,” he added. “But it is certainly closer to the reality than, for instance, The Good Wife.”

Rhea Seehorn, the actor who plays Kim, says both women and men lawyers have told her they identify with her character’s plight—getting slammed with grunt work and buffeted by office politics and hierarchies. “They tell me it’s great to see themselves up there,” Seehorn points out. “They say, ‘I know that place.’”

Staci Zaretsky, an editor for the legal website Above the Law, says she thought it was a good plot point. She notes that she was saddened, if fascinated, by Kim’s unexpected, and for all intents and purposes, unmerited, career blow. For the show’s entire run until this episode, Kim had been portrayed as a dedicated and hard-working employee. She’s the type of associate who works late, takes her casework home, and is still sifting through legal documents in bed.

“This is what I write about almost every week,” says Zaretsky, who is responsible for the recurring column, The Pink Ghetto, which delves into the dark side of the legal field. “[I focus on] women who are treated poorly by their law firms,” she says, “but they are afraid to do anything about it because they don’t want to be blacklisted in the legal profession. I think this is exactly how women think: that they cannot complain because they will never work again.”

Nicole Hyland, who maintains a Tumblr blog called The Legal Ethics of Better Call Saul, is a partner at New York law firm Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, PC, and chairs the Professional Ethics Committee of the New York City Bar Association, thinks, however, that it would have been more realistic for a four-year associate who’s on the skids with her firm to get the silent treatment.

“You might be given crappy cases,” Hyland says. “Or what often happens in big firms is that you’re not given any work at all. Or you’re given very little work. You’re sort of edged out of a firm because people stop working with you. They stop asking for you to be put on cases. Eventually, your hours are low as a result. And then you’re not making bonuses. And so you’re being forced out in this passive-aggressive sort of way.”

Better Call Saul didn’t start out to be a critique of the legal profession as it impacts women lawyers. A spinoff prequel to AMC’s hit series Breaking Bad, it primarily tells the backstory of Saul Goodman—as in, “s’all good man”—the lawyer to the drug kingpins of Breaking Bad. (There is a separate and parallel storyline involving another Breaking Bad character that we won’t get into here.)

Saul’s real name is Jimmy McGill. And in Better Call Saul, Jimmy (played by actor Bob Odenkirk) is already a wisecracking, hair-combed-over attorney with an instinct for massaging the law to benefit his clients. He and Kim are romantically entwined. Outside the office with Jimmy, Kim engages in some ethical lapses. Generally speaking, though, she functions as a straight arrow in contrast to his creative and freewheeling impulses.

And that’s unfortunate because her tendency to keep her head down and play by the rules clearly isn’t careening her up the ladder, which has “everything to do with the standards she’s held to as a woman,” wrote Working Woman Report’s Donna Bowman, who thinks women are held to higher standards than men. She also stated that the series evolved into “perhaps the best show about a working woman currently airing on television.”

Seeing that it’s both a spinoff and a prequel, the creators and writers have been challenged to work backward. They don’t always know where the story is going. But they have enlisted a contingent of lawyers to help them get there.

Ann Cherkis, the writer of the episode in which Kim gets punished with document review, is not a lawyer, but her father is a retired corporate attorney. She says he advised her on that legal procedure. Seehorn, in turn, executed it beautifully.

“There is a very specific process,” says Seehorn, describing how, for instance, whenever she took a file out, she’d insert a placeholder, as is customarily done. Instead of just tracing random words, she marked items in legal documents that were plausible, that made her appear to be searching for and coding information relevant to a case. “So it’s not just an empty gesture,” she adds.

In addition, when the actor speaks legalese, she doesn’t just practice the words. She confers with the production’s legal consultants until she has a full grasp of the legal matter. “I try to be respectful of this career that people put their lives into,” says Seehorn, who prepared for her part by reading Scott Turow’s One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School, which helped her find the humanity in her role.

Show writer Gordon Smith, likewise, leans on his family of lawyers for their insight into civil procedures, legal theories, criminal code, and case precedent.

“The [writers] don’t get everything right,” Hyland says. “But I think they’ve done a very good job.”

She notes how Jimmy, for instance, defends his tactic to advertise his legal services on a billboard by citing Supreme Court case Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, which upheld the right of lawyers to advertise. “It made me laugh out loud,” says Hyland. “It was like an inside joke. I appreciated that.”

Many TV shows, by comparison, take a more loosey-goosey approach to legal plot points. Zaretsky says, for instance, that she was recently watching a popular sitcom when a character stated that she had patented a recipe the night before. “It didn’t make any sense,” laughs Zaretsky, who adds that other shows “don’t so much handle it, as they mangle it.”

Better Call Saul also works hard to get Kim’s work wardrobe right. She isn’t making the big bucks just yet. Her understated black suits are actually separates. Her pulled-back hairstyle and subtle jewelry fit the part of someone who tries to blend into firm culture but doesn’t have a lot of time for dressing up. “She wants to be noticed for her legal mind,” Seehorn says.

Kim eventually decides to extricate herself from the firm’s doghouse by drumming up new business for it. An entertaining montage of scenes shows her furiously calling her law school classmates, people she’s met at networking mixers, and any source she can think of. Bingo! She snags a client.

“In reality, it takes a lot longer,” Hyland states.

Still, the script makes a sobering observation about what is required of associates to make partner. “They have to think,” Hyland says. “Am I going to be the person who brings in business as a rainmaker? Or am I always going to be someone who does someone else’s work?”

(Spoiler alert!) Nothing Kim does seems to improve her plight, though. By the end of season two, she decides to hang her own shingle, thus setting an example for demoralized or frustrated women lawyers everywhere to not just give up and quit the field.

“So really think about that,” Hyland suggests. “If you’re a woman lawyer and you’re in a crappy situation at a big firm or even a mid-sized firm where the culture is punitive or is not attuned to you in terms of how you interact in the world, there probably is a firm (or other law situation) out there that would work for you.”

We don’t know how things are going to go for Kim next season. But we’ve got our fingers crossed. And it’s probably safe to anticipate further career lessons in the form of an exhilarating ride into the scrappy reality of the independent lawyer.

The Pink Ghetto

The Pink Ghetto, a column in the website Above the Law, which covers the legal profession, invites women lawyers to share their real stories about sexism and harassment in the industry. Editor Staci Zaretsky says, “People should see these things. When we had stories in Above the Law, people would say, ‘You’re posting things from the 1970s.’ No, I’m posting stories from 2015, 2016. These things still happen. And you don’t hear about them because women are afraid to speak up about them. They are afraid to sue about them. They are afraid to lose their jobs. They are afraid to become unemployable. It stinks that sticking up for yourself will often turn you into someone who can no longer get a job.”

Read more at http://abovethelaw.com/tag/the-pink-ghetto.

Kim Wexler Quotes

“Either you fit the jacket, or the jacket fits you.”

“Winning doesn’t always mean getting a favorable verdict at trial. We try to achieve the best possible outcome for our clients, given each individual case.”

“I know we’re never supposed to say our clients are guilty, but, hey, not my client anymore. He’s guilty as sin.”

“I dig myself out of this hole. You do your job, Jimmy. Prove you can go one week—hell, one day—without breaking the rules of the New Mexico Bar Association or pissing off your boss. And don’t insult my intelligence by saying you are doing any of this for me. You don’t save me. I save me.”