A view from los angeles

It has been said that the US justice system has become the world's soap opera.

Assuming this to be true, you may rest assured that the script was written, directed and produced in Los Angeles (LA) and that the characters either lived here or moved here when the trial was over. While the practice of law among the 40,000-plus lawyers who call the City of Angels home is in many ways similar to that of any comparably-sized metropolitan area in the world – a mixture of sophisticated domestic and international work in the downtown area, run-of-the-mill civil and domestic practices in the various neighbourhoods of the city and ethnically-orientated practices among the nearly 30 major nationalities who call it home – the practice is overshadowed, as is the city itself, by a single pervasive influence: the entertainment industry.
Hollywood, Tinseltown, Glitter Gulch and The Biz are all synonyms for the folks who, more than 100 years ago, beat the internet to the discovery that one could get fabulously rich from a business venture based on fantasy and which never shows a profit. How does this influence the practice of law in LA? The direct effects are experienced by those who represent the various segments of The Biz: those who create, those who perform and those who produce. This is an industry dependent upon drama. It is a guiding principle in publicising its denizens, describing its events and creating its stories. Objective truth is not important (except when it sells). When detective Joe Friday in Dragnet spoke the line, “Just the facts, Ma'am”, he didn't really mean it. Bring culture with that bent into contact with a legal system that celebrates unadorned fact and you have the ingredients of a catastrophic event. An actor on the stand almost always finds the rules of evidence impossibly rigid. Citation to the language of a contract in a discussion almost always leads to the observation, “That's what it says, but that isn't what we meant.”
Indirectly, the effect is more widely felt. The projected image of the practice of law in LA is, of course, dictated by television through programmes like LA Law, Ally McBeal, The Practice et cetera. One hopes that the average viewer would question whether even the most talented lawyer in LA would have difficulty meeting with a client, preparing a case, solving their own life-threatening problems as well as that of their associates, trying the case and celebrating a verdict which has held back evil, all in 30 minutes. But still people ask, “Is that the way it is in your practice?” Either lawyers are more talented in other jurisdictions or one's hopes are too high regarding the average viewer.
Unlike other locales where lawyers are judged on their talents and accomplishments over a career, lawyers in LA are judged by the same standards as other performers – you are only as good as your last victory or as your public relations people say you are. This is acceptable to some LA lawyers, as two of every three see themselves as potential actors, screenwriters or directors (let alone rock stars) and are looking forward to writing and starring in the film (which is currently “under development”) about their last transaction or trial.
Are there pockets of sanity in the legal community in LA? Of course there are. A challenging examination for admission to the state bar and effective continuing legal education and disciplinary systems ensure that the quality of the lawyers is up to par. And we do work a lot harder than the television would have you believe. At least, as hard as anyone can work surrounded by palm trees, mountains, warm breezes and the beach. Have I mentioned surfing?
Charles Patterson is a litigation partner in Morrison & Foerster's Los Angeles office