As I have noted before, TV has one of its more ethically-sophisticated legal dramas to date in CBS’s “The Good Wife.” Oh, the lawyers (and their investigators) are frequently unethical, all right, but the show has seldom represented unethical conduct as ethical, or implied that it would be defensible if it came to the attention of the bar. In contrast, the new NBC Kathy Bates drama “Harry’s Law” has already ticketed itself for the Dumb Lawyer TV Show Hall of Shame, grossly misleading its audience about what constitutes a lawyer’s ethical duties. (Other recent admittees to the Hall: James Woods’ “Shark,” the Kathleen Quinlan drama “Family Law,” Steven Bochco’s embarrassing “Raising the Bar,”and every legal show created by David Kelley.)
I will repeat my call for state bar associations and the ABA to put out press releases condemning TV programs and movies (The Dumb Lawyer Movie Hall of Shame is bursting at the seams, with such deserving enshrinees as “The Verdict,” “And Justice For All,” “Runaway Jury,” “A Civil Action,” “Adam’s Rib,” “Nuts,” and about a hundred others) that actively misinform the public about a lawyer’s ethical responsibilities. In one episode of “Harry’s Law,” Bates, a defense attorney with a criminal defendant, actually throws a trial because she is convinced her client is guilty and that he lied to her. This is portrayed on the show as a courageous act. It isn’t. It is as terrible a breach of legal ethics as there can be, and would get any lawyer in America disbarred. Guilty clients still have the right to be proven guilty, and it is the defense lawyer’s job to make sure the prosecution does prove it, whether the defendant is guilty or not. Bates’s conduct was a betrayal and an abandonment of the integrity of the justice system. But she was not disbarred for it on the show. This not only served to excuse outrageously unprofessional conduct, but also to feed the public’s persistent confusion over why lawyers still defend guilty criminals.
“Harry’s” conduct was distinguishable from that of Daniel Bibb, a Manhattan prosecutor who admitted to tanking a hearing in order to ensure release of two men he believed were innocent. Yes, he should have been disbarred too (he wasn’t), but his actions, while betraying his client (the city of Manhattan), didn’t put a trusting defendant in jail without a zealous defense. Legal ethics rules require that prosecutors take extraordinary measures to prevent the innocent from being convicted—not this extraordinary, but at least Bibb was seeking the kind of justice prosecutors are charged with achieving. Bates, however, was directly violating her duty as a defense attorney, and “Harry’s Law’s” writer wanted the audience to believe that was heroic.
I’m not going to watch the show again, much as I admire Kathy Bates. When a show reaches the screaming at the screen stage (“Shark” had me doing this regularly), it’s just not healthy for me. It’s also not healthy for anyone else, who will finish watching each episode with less understanding of the ethical duties of lawyers than they had when they turned on the TV.