Best of Ethics Award 2022, Best Ethics TV Show: “The Good Fight”

Ethics TV shows, once, long ago, a major segment of popular television fare, are an endangered species. When I last gave out this award six years ago, the winner was the zombie apocalypse AMC hit “The Walking Dead.” Eventually TWD itself became a zombie; if I had named a winner of the award in recent years, based on what I saw, it probably would have been old standby and previous champion “Blue Bloods” on CBS, or as I call it, “The Conflict of Interest Family.” To the great credit of Tom Selleck and the writers, it’s still a strong ethics show in its 13th season; brave too (imagine: in 2022, a pro-police drama about a devout Catholic family that meets for Sunday dinner every week!). But I’ve found—finally–a better one.

And if I had been more alert, I would have found it six years ago. The show is “The Good Fight,” a spin-off of “The Good Wife” which Ethics Alarms discussed frequently during its run. I was a bit jaded after “The Good Wife,” because, as good legal series often do if they go on too long, it began resorting to outlandish plot devices as new ideas became harder to come by. Maybe that’s why I was so late checking in on “The Good Fight.” The series picks up the story of Christine Baranski’s character in “The Good Wife,” and streams on Paramount Plus, which I only recently subscribed to. This is the show’s final season, its sixth, but I’m starting from the beginning.

If the next five season raised no ethics issues at all—an impossibility with ethics-obsessed creator-writers Robert and Michelle King in charge—“The Good Fight” would still be the smartest and most sophisticated legal ethics drama since “The Defenders.” You can watch it here.

There are a lot of legal dramas on streaming services right now: “The Lincoln Lawyer,” “The Firm” (based on the John Grisham novel and film, with Grisham producing), “Partner Track,” “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” the now-completed “Better Call Saul,” and the extremely entertaining if over-the-top drama “Goliath,” starring Bill Bob Thornton as an alcoholic, depressive, idealistic litigator. If I had to recommend one over the rest, “The Good Fight” would be my choice.

The show’s first season raised some fascinating legal ethics gray areas that I may well end up using in my seminars. In fact, there were so many intriguing scenarios in Season One that it interfered with my enjoyment of the show from an entertainment standpoint: I kept being pulled out of the story as I found myself thinking, “Wait, what just happened? Can you do that? I wonder if some state has an ethics opinion….” And then I have to go to work.

For example, Baranski’s character, Diane Lockhart, decides to retire from her firm and the law, and is handling one last case. Then she discovers that her freind, with whom she had entrusted all of her savings to invest, had been running a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. Wiped out financially, she tries to rejoin her firm, but because she had advised others to invest with her scamster friend, she is suddenly persona non grata with all the major law firms in town. Then the adversary firm in what was to be her last case, an all-black partnership, offers her a partnership as “a diversity hire,” the senior partner says puckishly. Diane accepts, withdraws from the case, and hands it back to her old firm.

Legal ethics issues:

  • Was that handled ethically? Such mid-case firm-switching doesn’t happen very often, but the ABA was moved to issue an ethics opinion on the situation, stating that a lawyer is ethically obligated to report discussions about the possibility of such a move to her client as soon as talks become “serious.” Two things, though: 1) No states have followed the ABA’s lead, and ABA opinions are advisory only, and 2) There were no discussions. The all-black firm’s senior partner made the offer out of the blue. Diane replied, “Partner?” He said “Sure.”
  • She had already left her firm except for that final case. It’s none of their business what she does after she finishes her representation on it.
  • Presumably the firm informs their client that she has left immediately. Isn’t that sufficient?
  • Diane couldn’t work on the case from the other side, or against her former client on a related matter, and would have to be screened off from the other lawyers in her new firm handling that case because she presumably has confidential information that she must not reveal. I’m sure her old firm would try to get her new firm excluded from the case, but that would be unlikely to succeed.
  • My problem is with the offer. Isn’t that a device that could be intended to remove a good lawyer from the fight in challenging litigation? Rule 5.6, Restriction of the Right to Practice Law, prevents a lawyer from offering or discussing (in some states, only accepting) offers of employment to an adversary in the course of settlement negotiations where it can be considered a part of the settlement. This offer seems might close to the line, if just short of it.
  • I think any such offer should only occur after the end of the litigation, and that this scenario ought to be forbidden in the rules. It’s isn’t, however. That doesn’t make it ethical.

That was just one issue raised in one episode.See why the show drives me crazy? In a good way, of course.

In addition to being challenging, “The Good Fight” is also apparently psychic. In 2017, a story line almost perfectly anticipated the ethics issues surround Twitter’s censorship policies. It raised another legal profession ethics issue that I am about to post on imminently because of a recent incident: the politicizing of law firms.

The Kings are to be praised to the skies for creating such an entertaining ethics feast to stream that gives me bounteous fodder for ethics seminars. I’m trying to figure out how to get more lawyers to watch it. I’m seriously considering screening a one hour episode for a class and building a three hours seminar around it; there are some copyright issues to deal with. Lawyers generally avoid legal drama TV shows; in this case, lawyers are the perfect audience. The writing and acting is sufficiently skillful that knowledge of the law certainly isn’t required to appreciate “The Good Fight,” but I guarantee that having me around to provide commentary will enhance any non-lawyer’s viewing experience.

Runner-Up: “The Crown” (Netflix)

 

6 thoughts on “Best of Ethics Award 2022, Best Ethics TV Show: “The Good Fight”

  1. Call me a philistine, but Christine Baranski’s best character is in her role as Leonard Hofstadter’s mother. Her psychiatry laced dialog, performed by her expressionless and deadpan delivery, is beyond hysterical. As for “The Good Wife”/”The Good Fight” I simply couldn’t get into the show.

    jvb

            • I was afraid of that after the Trump election kick-off, but I think you’d find that you may be suffering from confirmation bias. I’m hyper-sensitive to left-leaning preaching on TV shows, and though the Kings certainly tilt that way, the program settled in to surprising even-handedness: smart. Admittedly, I am so distracted by all the ethics commotion that I barely get to consider the acting. Baranski is not a leading lady; she’s an excellent supporting actress, so making her the “star” signals that the show is plot and substance-driven more than character and performance-driven. It also makes the show an ensemble piece without a “hero.”

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