Christine A. Corcos, What We Talk About When We Talk About Law Schools: Deconstructing Meaning In Popular Culture Images of Legal Education

What We Talk About When We Talk About Law Schools: Deconstructing Meaning In Popular Culture Images of Legal Education[1]



Films, television, and novels often send us very specific messages about law schools and legal education that tend to replicate and reinforce both general notions about the ways in which we educate our lawyers, and in turn sustain our legal system.  Most movies, tv shows, and novels mention the Ivy League law schools because they represent the first step toward guaranteed achievement in a legal career. Such mentions serve as proxies for several things, including that the character who attended the school is intelligent, ambitious, and possibly from a privileged background.  Even viewers who know little about law schools are familiar with U.S. News Rankings[2] and what those rankings mean. Viewers understand that Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Stanford lead the list. They know that these schools are the most selective and prestigious.[3] If popular culture characters attend, graduate from, or teach at these schools, then they are likely to be smart, or wealthy, or ambitious.

Depending on the kind of film, though, viewers might receive additional messages.  If the film is critical of lawyers or the legal system, some of the characters enrolled in highly ranked schools, for example, may be wealthy and spoiled, or interested only in their own careers, with little interest in the plight of the poor and disadvantaged. For films in which the characters do not graduate from highly ranked schools, viewers may receive messages indicating what such associations mean.  A particular character might not have been intelligent enough, wealthy enough, or privileged enough to attend a prestigious school, which then may have implications for the character’s potential success in the legal profession. If the school has a fictitious name, the message is even clearer. The characters who attend those schools have an uphill fight to establish their credentials with the viewers. They might be unintelligent, or less than ethical, or less wealthy, or on the contrary, they might be the heroes of the story, fighting for legitimacy in spite of their lack of privilege. Given these cues, viewers can normally tell the difference between characters who attend Harvard Law as in Legally Blonde[4] or The Paper Chase,[5] and characters who attend the Chester A. Arthur School of Law, as in The Socratic Method,[6] or North Valley Law School as in the tv series Mom,[7] and what popular culture expects them to think about these characters. Popular culture also sends some specific messages about the adequacy or insufficiency of legal education, and thus about the fitness of law graduates to practice law.

Some Specific Examples of Contrasts Between Elite and Lesser-Ranked Law Schools

Consider the contrast between victim and murderer in the iconic film Body Heat.[8] Edmund, the ill-fated husband, is a Columbia Law graduate. Ned Racine, the killer, went to Florida State. Edmund’s Ivy League law degree signals to us that  that he is much more intelligent, and a much better lawyer, even though he no longer practices law, if he ever did. The very mention of a top law school signals to us that we should think about these two men in two radically different ways. Yet the film urges us to compare them and to consider them as two sides of the same coin. Even their names are similar: Edmund and Ned, Ned being a diminutive of Edward.  The rest of the film bears out our assessment that Ned is something of an idiot. Even if Edmund trusts his wife, which he obviously shouldn’t (maybe he’s much more foolish than we thought initially), Ned is also a pawn in Matty’s hands. The police eventually arrest Ned for murdering Edmund, and we watch the D.A., who is a close friend of Ned’s, obtain Ned’s conviction.

Initially, we may be a little suspicious of Edmund. We don’t quite understand the relationship between him and his wife Matty; their marriage may be solid, or Edmund may be more in love with Matty than she is with him. Is Matty interested in an affair with Ned, who already seems to be emerging as Edmund’s rival? We already like and sympathize with the somewhat freewheeling and lost Ned; he even seems not to be the hero of his own life. Matty already seems to have enchanted him.  We sense that Ned is at a disadvantage, particularly because of the way Edmund addresses him, telling him that “Florida State is a good school.” Does Edmund mean the comment to be as patronizing as Ned seems to think it is? We sense that Edmund doesn’t really mean that. Is Florida State a “good school” to a man who graduated from Columbia Law? Is Edmund sincere? Has he heard already about Ned’s reputation as a mediocre local attorney? The contrast between the two men (the elite law school graduate examining the state law school product, the husband perhaps already warily sizing up a younger and attractive possible challenger for his wife)—is obvious early in the film.

Our first impression of Vinny Gambini in My Cousin Vinny[9] is that he is brash, loud, unpolished, and incapable. One of his clients chooses the services of the public defender rather than take his chances with this newly admitted attorney who has never tried a death penalty case. Indeed, Vinny, who has failed the bar exam numerous times, has never tried any cases at all.  He seems unable to understand proper courtroom etiquette, and appears to be poorly educated and from a lower socio-economic class than many of the people in the small town he visits, and his own cousin. He seems to be a walking stereotype: a quiet Southern town’s worst imagining of a New Yorker. At first glance, his Brooklyn “street smarts” do not seem as if they will translate well to this venue.  But Vinny may have gambled that a law school education, even obtained at a lower tier school like the one he attended,  might be a ticket to a much more rewarding  future. The film eventually demonstrates that he is correct.

Vinny finally redeems himself by obtaining an acquittal for his clients in My Cousin Vinny, although he freely criticizes the fictional law school he attended to his fiancée Mona Lisa Vito, and by proxy, to us.  The Brooklyn Academy of Law is reminiscent of law schools that, until recently, taught students doctrinal law but (at least according to Vinny) nothing of practical value, as he tells Mona Lisa.[10] Vinny is highly critical, as many other graduates have been, of schools that don’t teach “anything useful.” High ranking law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law do not receive that kind of criticism. Does the public understand that recent law graduates could graduate with little or no practical experience and could easily decide to open their own firms, just as Vinny Gambini does?  Consider the ease with which Christy’s mother refers to her as “a lawyer” before Christy has even begun law school.[11] While more and more law schools now offer clinical courses, in part because the American Bar Association currently requires that student complete at least six hours of experiential credits,[12] what students actually do as part of their experiential learning is limited. They are not licensed; therefore, they cannot perform all of the duties of lawyers admitted to the bar.[13]

If we examine some examples of films and tv shows, we are also likely to find that they fall into these two categories.  Dramas tend to emphasize the “elite law school” in which students are highly educated, highly competent, and/or highly competitive. Much of the story may then develop through comparison among those students. The point may be to present a direct critique of the legal system and legal education. Examples include The Paper Chase, Rounders,[14] and Just Cause.[15]  The other is of the “barely functional” law school, the law school for the rest of us, in which at least some students rank as, for lack of better words, sub-par.  These students may or may not be competitive, but film and tv often present at least some of them as incompetent. Because such images are not very appetizing, these films and tv shows are much more likely to be comedies, as in Cristela[16] and My Cousin Vinny.[17] In many ways, these students and graduates reflect general notions of practicing lawyers that the public has, and of access to justice. These shows and films tell us that the best legal representation is for the rich and the elite. The rest of us get the assistance we can pay for, which we fear might not be the best available.  In any case, something in us rejects the notion that only the wealthy ought to be able to afford the best legal representation, just as only the wealthy ought to be able to afford Ivy League educations. For this reason, characters such as the mother in the film Just Cause beg for assistance from faculty at an elite law school, even though a practicing attorney with years of experience, even one who has no association with Harvard Law, might be better able to evaluate their cases. Even if they don’t admit it, audiences take their cues from popular culture with regard to their evaluation of the competence and skill of attorneys. The choice of alma mater for fictional attorneys tells us something important about these characters. That writers often select Ivy League schools rather than state schools or fictional schools, therefore, sends strong signals about the ambition, intelligence, skill, and trustworthiness of attorney characters, as surely as do other characteristics and plot points of the stories.  In large part, the law school is proxy for the ultimate competence of the attorney, and the viewer understands this message very well. If we didn’t already know this, we can take a hint. If the school is good, it usually has a name we recognize, as in The Paper Chase’s Harvard.  If it’s questionable, it usually doesn’t, as in The Socratic Method’s Chester A. Arthur School of Law, or Mom’s North Valley Law.

Some of these films also send particular messages about the roles that law schools and legal education expect law students and lawyers to fulfill in society. Harvard Law School shines as the premier U.S. law school, representing a student’s ticket to success. The charming but initially clueless Elle Woods in the film Legally Blonde selects Harvard Law School (HLS), although note that Amanda Brown sets her novel at Stanford, where she attended law school.[18] The change of venue might mean that the filmmaker thought that the public would more readily recognize Harvard Law than Stanford, although it seems that Stanford generally does not want to be associated with films. [19] Certainly, Legally Blonde sends a very clear message about the kind of education available to women at the most prestigious law schools in the country.[20] For one thing, Harvard expects women to conform to the male norm. At least initially, we see no indication that professors, students, or staff are willing to change their expectations to accommodate a student who, although intelligent, does not meet that norm. Eventually, however, eventually Professor Stromwell challenges Elle Woods to be herself while also being a successful law student. What is refreshing about Legally Blonde is the way in which the protagonist meets Harvard’s expectations—that she do well in school—but that she do so while being true to her own identity. For viewers who think that Harvard Law is stuffy and unimaginative, Elle Woods is a real hero in a way that we don’t normally expect.[21]

A Harvard Law Professor, Paul Armstrong, played by Sean Connery, gets his comeuppance in the film Just Cause.[22]  Armstrong, who is opposed to the death penalty, takes a death penalty case to assist in exonerating a young African American man, Bobby Ferguson, after Ferguson’s mother begs him to do so. As it turns out, Ferguson and another man, already awaiting execution, have arranged a deal between them. Ferguson is actually guilty. The film suggests that Armstrong is somewhat blinded by his politics and doesn’t understand Ferguson or his motives. Not until Armstrong teams up with the detective who originally worked on the case (played by Laurence Fishburne) does he outwit Ferguson. Another clear message that viewers receive is that elite law professors are disconnected from the real world; they have little common sense.

Reversal of Fortune, based on Alan Dershowitz’s book of the same name,[23] depicts Dershowitz as an idealistic but still savvy law professor who takes a case on appeal to validate the due process rights of a somewhat unappealing defendant. Dershowitz takes the case not because he likes the defendant, who is now convicted of attempted murder, but because he thinks the issues presented are extremely interesting. Some scenes in the film show interactions between Dershowitz and his clinical students, illustrating how they gain practical experience and an understanding that even if one doesn’t like one’s clients, one still owes them the duty of zealous representation.[24] This sort of scene may serve to shore up the idea in the public’s mind that unpopular defendants are still entitled to a defense, a concept that may not have much support these days.

The ambitious and initially ruthless Mark Watson of Soul Man[25] attends Harvard Law on a scholarship meant for African Americans even though he is white. That film presents a very clear ethical issue of a privileged law student using others for his own reasons, and finally understanding that that is not the purpose of the law and it is not the purpose of a legal education.  The ultimately disillusioned James T. Hart of The Paper Chase, a film based on John Jay Osborn’s novel, realizes that HLS is no place for him and finally abandons his legal education  in an iconic scene that it’s unlikely  few lawyers and law professors  have seriously thought about emulating.  By making a paper airplane out of the letter containing his grades and sending it flying into the ocean, Hart literally and symbolically throws away that part of his life and cleanses himself of that experience. (Water represents both cleansing and rebirth). He abandons “the paper chase,” the race for validation and recognition that he and his classmates have engaged in for the past year. Significantly, he also turns his back on the course and the professor that he has spent some much time studying (at least in the film)—contract law. He fulfills the contract and then refuses to renew it, by taking the final exam in the course and then abandoning law school at the end of the first year after he successfully completes it.  Whether he can eliminate the effect that learning even a little bit of law has had on his brain is another question.

Similarly, a number of novels use law schools as a background for an examination of legal academia or related issues. In addition to The Paper Chase, they include G. H. Ephron’s mystery Guilt,[26] in which someone is targeting Harvard Law School with a series of bombings.  The late University of Florida law professor Michael Seigel[27] set his novel Improbable Events: Murder at Ellington Hall[28] at a fictional Florida law school. Amanda Cross (Carolyn Gold Heilbrun) sets her novel An Imperfect Spy at the fiction Schuyler Law School, where her series sleuth Kate Fansler solves the mystery behind the death of the school’s only tenured female professor.[29] Scott Gaille’s The Law Review,[30] takes place at the University of Chicago Law School amid a massive battle for control of the school’s flagship law journal. William Deverell’s Trial of Passion[31] is a courtroom novel involving the acting dean of a law school accused of rape. Michael Levin’s The Socratic Method[32] describes one week in the life of Rebecca Shepard, who’s seeking tenure at McKinley Law School. Finally, Yale Law Professor Stephen L. Carter’s The Emperor of Ocean Park is set at fictional Elm Harbor Law School.[33]

The suggestion is that because of its pre-eminence and easy recognition by the public, HLS has a particular importance for U.S. legal education and culture. Articles like U.S. News and World Report’s 2014 Best Global Universities Ranking which lists Harvard as the best school in the world gives all of Harvard’s units a boost, including the law school.[34] An amazing number of pop culture lawyers graduate from Harvard Law, including Ally McBeal and Billy Thomas of the popular tv series Ally McBeal,[35] and Harvey Spector of Suits.[36] Note that Spector wishes only to hire Ivy League law graduates, but offers Mike Ross a position as an associate, even though he knows that Mike has no law degree. Harvey’s desire to maintain the elite character of the firm is in direct competition with his wish to hire a smart individual, who can help him immensely. The fact that Mike, who does so well as an LSAT test-taker for would-be elite law school students, cannot himself attend such a school, again suggests that such law schools may do a poor job in identifying the best students, instead preferring privileged and wealthy applicants.

Other fictional students and graduates select also select Ivy League law schools. The idealistic Marshall Erickson of How I Met Your Mother and Edmund Walker of Body Heat both attend Columbia Law. Rebecca Bunch of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a Yale Law graduate.[37] Attendance at state schools almost always instantly signifies either lesser ambition or lesser ability.  Consider the hapless and murderous Ned Racine of Body Heat, who attends Florida State, and the students of The Socratic Method, some of whom are ethically challenged, who labor through three years at a fictional lower tier California law school.

The short lived tv series The Deep End[38] featured 5 first year associates at a prestigious Los Angeles firm called Sterling, Huddle, Oppenheim, Craft. These recruits are from the “best law schools around the world,” and one of them is a Case Western Law School graduate. Has it vaulted into the top tier?[39] Apparently the show’s creator (who was an associate at a law firm before he took up Hollywood) made her a CWRU Law graduate because the most intelligent person he knew graduated from there.

Not all “prestigious” law schools have recognizable names. The school in How To Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM) has the name Middleton University School of Law. One of the reasons  a show’s creators would use a fictional name for some law schools, whether the law schools are low ranked or more prestigious, has to do with the show’s message, as I’ve already noted. Another has to do with legal exposure for the show’s creators. If the schools are well known and prestigious, they can weather satire, as in Legally Blonde, or a murder or two set on their campuses, as in An Imperfect Spy.  Indeed, legally they might have to do so. In one case, an appellate court reversed an injunction granted by a lower court in favor of the plaintiff university, instead holding that the use of a university’s name in a satiric film would not lead reasonable viewers to believe that the university was associated with the film.[40]

But if the message of the film is that the legal education is subpar, that criminal activity is rampant, or else that the school in question generally does not permit filming on its campus, then the film or tv series will change the name of the school to a fictional one or set the action at another school. Thus, we see the invention of Middleton University Law School for HTGAWM, the Chester A. Arthur Law School for The Socratic Method, and North Valley Law for Mom, and the change of venue for Legally Blonde. We may think we recognize the institution in question, but we would probably not want to say so out loud.

Some Messages About the Quality of Legal Education

The iconic television show Perry Mason wove law students and law schools into its series and later into its made for television movies, suggesting that law students not only learned about law by participating in trials, but also by committing illegal acts. The notion that learning by doing is one that viewers would become familiar with over the years in various television series. But the idea that law students and lawyers would learn “how to get away with murder” is one that subverts the very idea of the rule of law, and one that television shows and films continually return to. In two episodes of the original series, we see law students implicated as defendants. In “The Case of the Grumbling Grandfather,”[41] Perry takes the case of aspiring law student David Gideon, accused in the murder of the blackmailing husband of a woman whom David has been seeing. David becomes a recurring character for the season, appearing in several episodes, on occasion doing legal research, and  often assisting Perry and private investigator Paul Drake with solving murder cases.[42] In one episode,  he gives Perry helpful information about paranormal research;[43] in another, he demonstrates his knowledge of painting technique in order to help Perry prove that the artist husband of a client had faked his own death.[44]

In “The Case of the Libelous Locket,”[45] law professor Edward Lindley defends his student Janice Norland when the district attorney accuses her of murdering Raul Perez, a dance teacher. The episode makes the point that those who teach the law might think twice about doing what those who practice do every day, the same lesson that the film Just Cause also drives home.

Perry Mason returned as a character in a series of made-for-television movies beginning in 1985.[46] In the 1989 tv movie “The Case of the Lethal Lesson,”[47] Perry has an adjunct position teaching law at an unnamed law school in Denver.  In some of the early scenes, we see Perry instructing the students in trial technique, for which viewers of the 1960s television series would have remembered him.  When one of the students is murdered, and another, Ken Malansky, is arrested, the students in Perry’s class decide to try to solve the case themselves.  Meanwhile, Perry takes on Ken’s defense.  The decision that the students make to try to solve the murder is significant. It demonstrates not just that the students have a sense of solidarity, which contrasts with the aggressive competitiveness that we often see associated with law students in legal movies. The students explicitly discuss the fact that, given the circumstances of the murder, the killer is likely to be one of them. Therefore, they feel threatened. The threat could pull them apart. Just as competitiveness and stress can drive law students apart in school, so too could fear and uncertainty. But they decide to work together. Malansky, who is of course not guilty, later becomes a recurring character in the tv movies, assisting Perry in investigating cases, becoming particularly active after he graduates from law school and passes the bar.[48]

In a post for Above the Law, Alex Rich refers to the inaccuracy of How To Get Away With Murder’s portrayal of legal education as “scream-worthy.”[49] HTGAWM presents us with Annalise Keating, a criminal law professor, who is an adjunct at what the show assures us is a prestigious Philadelphia law school.   She abandons the traditional criminal law teaching method in her first-year class, opting to teach her students by using her own cases.  Middleton Law seems to be “loosely based” on Penn Law. “Penn was the show’s first choice for filming, according to Sharon Pinkenson, the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, but the University turned down the offer in order to avoid disturbing campus life.”[50] Pinkenson also believes that HTGAWM creator Shonda Rhimes chose a Philadelphia setting for the show because the venue is different from the usual New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago locations that normally host legal television shows.  “‘It’s the perfect combination…There’s a great Ivy League college,” referring to Penn, “and lawyers in Philadelphia have been famous for centuries.’”[51]

Keating further deviates from the traditional law school curriculum by encouraging her first year, first semester students to audition for spots in her law firm to assist her with her cases.[52] Both law schools and the ABA frown on the idea of full time first year students engaging in work; the law school curriculum is difficult enough, and the first year requires immense concentration to grasp both doctrine and new terminology.  Middleton Law School’s dean finally discovers what Keating is doing, although it takes him far longer than one would expect in a well-run law school.  Meanwhile Keating has moved along with her own approach to pedagogy, involving her students in, well, the accidental death of her husband and associated shenanigans. The show is so successful that it is now in its fifth season, but the students are still apparently only 2Ls.  They’re involved in covering up yet another death. One wonders when they attend class or study. By the fifth season Keating has finally lost her adjunct teaching position, relapsed in alcoholism and depression, and is close to losing her license to practice.

The students in HTGAWM are as committed to the study of criminal law as James Hart is to the study of contracts, and all we really see them study is criminal law, just as all we seem to see Hart study is contracts. This single-mindedness suggests to the audience that law students concentrate on one kind of law in law school, and they attend law school in order to become experts in that kind of law. Of course, that is not so, and the non-lawyer can easily become confused. She doesn’t realize that law is a general degree, and that expertise comes after law school graduation, just as medicine is a general degree, and expertise comes after years of study after the M.D.[53]

The HTGAWM students (the “Keating Five”) are fairly diverse in terms of ethnicity. Michaela and Wes are African-American, and Laurel, Asher, and Connor are Caucasian. Connor is gay. Yet of the five, Wes seems to be the only one who does not come from a privileged or upper middle class background.[54] Some of the other students seem acutely aware both of their privilege and of his lack of it.

That becoming an attorney (like becoming a physician or an architect) is a means of social mobility is clear. The current tv series Mom[55] testifies to the continuing desire to show that we still want access to justice, and that people still aspire to break into the middle class or the upper middle class. Christy, the 40-something recovering alcoholic in Mom, is finally graduating from college and dreams of going to law school. That she’ll have to explain away her convictions is not an issue that the show addresses. It’s too interested in her other problems: her struggles to stay sober, her problems with her daughter (who is busy replicating the family history of teen pregnancy and failure to finish high school), and her repeated failed relationships. When Christy makes an adequate score on the LSAT, she announces triumphantly that her results will open up the possibility that the best of the mediocre law schools will offer her admission.

In the episode “Pudding and a Screen Door,”[56]  the finally optimistic Christy receives the shattering news that none of the law schools she applied to has accepted her. As she tells her mother, who had convinced her to apply to Stanford, she knew that notably selective school would reject her, but she was absolutely confident that bottom tier North Valley Law would open its arms to her.   North Valley Law was her “safe school,” and it admits classmates who were less interested in post-graduate education than she is. But some of her classmates who seem barely functional receive admissions to UC Berkeley and other distinguished schools. Christy is devastated.

She contemplates whether even finishing her degree is worthwhile. In the next episode, “Charlotte Bronte and a Backhoe,”[57] guest star Kristin Chenoweth (wonderful as Miranda the life coach) gives Christy the courage to march into North Valley Law’s admissions office and ask for a re-evaluation of her application, which she actually gets. The admissions dean wants dinner reservations at a fancy restaurant. The admissions secretary is panicked. Christy lets her know that she is employed at one of those upscale restaurants and can be of assistance in exchange for a few minutes with the admissions dean. This outcome again suggests that “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”[58]  Christy returns home with the promise that if she raises her LSAT scores the next time she takes it; she stands a good chance of admission the next time she applies. Christy probably would have gotten a second chance at admission at North Valley Law without talking to the admissions dean, but she now believes she has more control over her future.

Once Christy begins law school, her experiences are as stereotypically unpleasant as viewers have come to expect from viewings of The Paper Chase and other law school movies. In the episode “Pre-Washed Lettuce and a Mime,”[59] the professor addresses the class with the well-worn trope, “Look to the left and to the right…at the end of the year, one of you won’t be here.”[60] Christy tells the other members of her AA group that class was terrifying; it was all about “What’s the significance of this case and that case?”  Viewers are familiar with the haughty and dismissive attitude Christy’s professor exhibits from Professor Kingfield’s display in The Paper Chase; they can also see it in Legally Blonde and in The Socratic Method. It was part of the “toughening up” that law professors traditionally handed out to students to prepare them for the legal profession. It is less common today.[61]

Christy encounters the demanding and self-centered Professor Stevens in “Ambulance Chasers and a Babbling Brook.”[62] The professor, who teaches contracts, displays the worst characteristics of any instructor. She is demeaning, short-tempered, and imperious, belittling the students and telling them that she dislikes teaching but has a mortgage to pay. When she and Christy attend an AA meeting near the campus, Stevens announces that she is not an alcoholic and doesn’t need the assistance of any program to remain sober. What she would like is Christy’s undivided attention and admiration. In return, Stevens allows Christy to come to class unprepared. When Christy finally tells Stevens that she relies on the stability that AA gives her, Stevens is disgusted. She returns to her previous treatment of Christy as a lowly, unsophisticated, and uneducated person unworthy of her attention. Stevens also presents the stereotyped image of the alcoholic who refuses to accept that she has a problem, as well as the know-it-all professor who won’t accept that she needs assistance from others.

In “Pork Loin and a Beat-Up Monte Carlo,”[63] Christy and other students in a criminal law course compete for the internship the professor is offering at his law firm. As in HTGAWM, an adjunct is teaching a required course. The students “audition” by participating in a mock trial; Christy and her nemesis in the class do battle as the prosecutor and defense counsel. Because the professor mentions the law firm, we know he is an adjunct; “My firm,” (to which the class responds “Stone, Gannon, and Associates,”) signals to the audience that he is almost certainly an adjunct faculty member. According to the ABA, “Regularly engaging in law practice or having an ongoing relationship with a law firm or other business creates a presumption that a faculty member is not a full-time faculty member under this Standard.”[64] While the “audition” in this episode reminds us of the all-out competition in the pilot episode of How To Get Away With Murder, the adjunct professor in Mom signals a more highly evolved sense of ethics. He explains the requirements. In another scene, after he offers Christy a paid summer position, she hugs him. He points out that he cannot hug her back. The other, rather unfortunate message of these two episodes seems to be that doctrinal faculty such as Professor Stevens really dislike teaching, whereas practitioners such as Professor Gannon seem devoted to their students (possibly because they teach only part time?)  The ABA is unlikely to approve of the practice, long term, of a law school’s practice of assigning an adjunct to teach a required course. That Mom shows an adjunct teaching a required course signals to those who understand how law schools function that North Valley Law may not be an elite law school, and incidentally that Middleton Law School might not be, either.

Another recent series, Cristela, shows us a Latinx law student, Cristela Hernandez, living in the Dallas area who has been pursuing a law degree for years, at an unnamed law school, and working as an unpaid intern at an unnamed law firm.  The show focuses on Cristela’s vibrant personality and her willingness to stand up to her racist boss and her over the top family. There are a number of stereotypes operating in this series, but one of the most important is that we see a Hispanic woman using the opportunity to follow a law career to create some change in her life, in the lives of her relatives, and in her community. Legal education is clearly a proxy for opportunity in the US. In the last episode, “Movin’ On Up,”[65]  Cristela passes the bar and takes on a position as an associate with the law firm, but her sister still clearly prefers that she pursue another career or get married, which suggests that education is not the preferred outcome in some families for women even today.

Similarly, the series Monk presents us with law student Julie Parlo,[66] who has little aptitude for her chosen profession.  When kidnappers seize her grandmother, Julie confronts the police to demand immediate action and attempts to them with a dazzling display of legalese. Unfortunately for her, it backfires because she doesn’t actually know what she’s talking about.

Julie: Excuse me, Captain Stottlemeyer?

Stottlemeyer: Yup.

Julie: Hi, I’m Julie Parlo. Uh, where is the FBI? This is a kidnapping. I happen to be a lawyer, so I know that in a kidnapping situation the FBI has jurisprudence.

Disher: That’s only true if your grandmother’s been taken across state lines…

Stottlemeyer: Or if she’s been held for more than twenty-four hours. And I think you meant to say “jurisdiction.” What kind of lawyer are you?

Julie also says she can’t remember whether forgery under the California code is a “Class B” or a “Class C” felony. California doesn’t classify felonies in that way, and the Penal Code allows forgery to be prosecuted or punished as either a misdemeanor or a felony.[67]

When Monk meets with Parlo and her study group, we discover that her fellow students seem to know as little about law as she does. One of them is studying Spanish in order to take the Peruvian bar exam. He seems not to understand that if he succeeds in doing so, he’ll be admitted to practice law in Peru, not in the United States.  Another student admits that he failed to represent two clients adequately in a death penalty case because he didn’t review “all the facts.”  While much of Monk satirizes both law enforcement and the justice system, one hopes the viewers particularly see this comment as over the top. A law student, even one taking a clinic, would not be handling a death penalty case alone. We don’t know which law school these students attend but it is clearly not a ranked law school like Berkeley, Hastings, the University of San Francisco, or Stanford. (It may be North Valley Law).[68]

Finally, the reboot of the late 1990s series Will & Grace presents lawyer Will Truman as an aspiring law professor.[69] He’s an adjunct at New York School of Law, his alma mater,[70] and we don’t quite know what courses he’s teaching. He appears to teach corporate law,[71]  which makes sense. He has practiced for years as a corporate attorney. We later discover that he also teaches legal ethics. Law schools often hire their successful graduates as adjuncts, so this situation is not unusual, although we should note that Will did abandon practice to work with Grace in her interior design firm. In “Family, Trip,” Will invites several of his students to his apartment for a study group. They leave behind some drinks, which he, Jack, Grace, and Karen sample. The drinks turn out to be laced with drugs, and the four hallucinate. This episode suggests that some law students would be likely to take along such beverages (maybe to imbibe after their meeting with a professor) and then forget them at the professor’s home, although why they would remove them from their bags is unclear, as is the notion of why four adults would help themselves to someone else’s food and drink. What the episode also suggests is that some law students use drugs; drug use is a subject that the ABA, AALS, and law schools are certainly concerned about. Some students have seen their dreams of law practice vanish because of drug addiction.[72] That the show presents Will in the role of professor suggests that he has achieved the pinnacle of success in the legal profession, although one of the students derisively points out that he is after all just an adjunct. Their attitude suggests that being a faculty member is somehow “better” than being a practitioner or an adjunct.

In the episode “Dead Man Texting,”[73] Will applies for a regular faculty position at NYU Law. Henry Rice, one of the NYU Law faculty, comes to the apartment Will and Grace share to speak with Will. Now we discover that Will apparently teaches ethics. But when Rice topples over, Will and Grace think he’s dead from a heart attack. He still hasn’t sent the decision makers at NYU his opinion of Will as a hire for the faculty, so using a retinal scan, they break into his phone and send a text message as if it were from him, recommending Will for the position. A few seconds later, Rice awakens. It turns out that he suffers from a medical condition that causes him to lose consciousness. When he confronts Will about the text message, Will pleads that he has fallen in love with the law, and begs for a second chance. Rice seems to relent. However, Will’s breach of ethics here is grave. Should Rice really overlook Will’s behavior? Will and Grace actually end by suggesting that they won’t reveal Rice’s condition if he agrees to recommend Will for the faculty position. Such an agreement suggests that Will’s grasp of ethics is even more tenuous than it originally appears.

The episode also suggests that academic hiring is quite simple and somewhat biased. Someone, usually an influential individual, likes a particular person, and can effectuate that character’s employment as a faculty member. Securing a faculty position is about who you know, and not about what you know. Such an image is directly contradictory to the notion that elite institutions hire the most brilliant faculty, who then teach the most brilliant students, but once again, these kinds of cues serve to send a message to the viewers that legal education is a game that only those “in the know” can win. The “game” metaphor survives and infects notions of the legal system.

Of course, academic hiring is not this easy, and obtaining a regular, tenure-track position is certainly not so simple. Henry Rice would not have the power to sway his colleagues to look so favorably on Will’s candidacy simply by talking with him and then sending a text message to the hiring committee Real-life academic hiring practices don’t resemble what we see in this episode.  Briefly, law faculty hiring, whether for tenure track or non-tenure track (contract) positions, like other academic faculty hiring, begins with an advertisement for the position, collection of resumes, continues through a search committee’s examination of those resumes, selection of qualified candidates, interviews (including on-site interviews) who give job talks (particularly for tenure track positions), and finally, if the search is successful, with an offer and acceptance.[74] Even if the school hiring is a private school, like NYU, it normally posts its positions in order to comply with federal requirements.[75]

Finally, we see Will in another interaction at the law school, this time with a colleague.[76] Even though, as he tells Grace and Jack, the law school “frowns on” faculty dating, he decides to approach an attractive professor who teaches civil procedure. The other professor urges him to overlook the school’s “no dating” policy and they decide to have coffee. But Will discovers that the colleague is married, and changes his mind, asserting that he has ethics, even if his colleague doesn’t.  For Will to assert that he has ethics, after deciding to ignore the school’s policy, is remarkable, and it is even more remarkable when we consider his behavior in “Dead Man Texting.” Once again, what the show sends us a message about lawyers more interested in using the tools they have to obtain the outcome that they want instead of giving effect to the rule of law. The “game” metaphor is in full force. Will himself is a prime example of this message. He teaches legal ethics to future lawyers, but in his own life seems unable to incorporate ethics into his own life. As a matter of record, here is part of New York University’s policy on Intimate Relationships.  Depending on the power differential between Will and the other faculty member, it might apply to the situation in this episode (although it does not actually state there is a “no dating” policy).


Entering into a sexual, dating or romantic relationship (“Intimate Relationship”) when one individual has power or authority over the other may compromise freely given consent, put the academic and professional development of the individuals at risk, and seriously undermine the foundation of trust, fairness and integrity that is essential to NYU’s academic mission. Faculty, administrators, and others who educate, supervise, evaluate, employ, counsel, coach or otherwise make decisions or recommendations as to the other person in connection with their employment or education at the University, or who otherwise have actual or apparent authority over a student or subordinate, should understand the fundamentally asymmetrical nature of the relationship. In the context of the University’s educational and employment context, Intimate Relationships in circumstances where on individual has greater power or authority over another individual may raise sexual harassment concerns and can create perceptions of favoritism and preferential treatment. Such relationships are prohibited. Intimate Relationships between the following individuals are specifically prohibited:


  • A faculty member and an undergraduate student;
  • A faculty member and a graduate student in the same discipline or academic program;
  • An academic or faculty advisor and an advisee;
  • A teaching assistant and a student in the teaching assistant’s class;
  • A coach and a student-athlete; and,
  • A manager/supervisor/dean and an employee over whom they have supervisory authority.[77]


Does the public understand the prior work experience that law faculty bring to academia? Possibly, although not everyone agrees that law professors have much expertise to offer. One commentator on Twitter wrote,  “I’m sorry, I just have a hard time taking law professors seriously after a prominent one on Twitter told me that most of them couldn’t tell you what a Motion in Limine is (after a craptacular federal district court judge confirmation hearing)”.[78] The suggestion, at least from some lawyers, is that many law professors have no practical experience and thus limited useful information to impart. However, other members of the public and journalists routinely turn to law faculty for information and expertise. Pop culture often highlights the difference between law faculty and practicing lawyers, to the detriment of the former. In Reversal of Fortune, a possible witness in the von Bulow case seems to have no respect for Alan Dershowitz, and Dershowitz seems to set aside the lack of respect that several characters have for him.[79] Paul Armstrong (played by Sean Connery), the law professor in Just Cause, completely misunderstands that his client has taken advantage of him, partly because he has been out of the courtroom and in the classroom for 25 years.

Finally, the film The Seat Filler,[80] about a law student studying for the bar who takes a temporary job as a seat filler for awards shows, is one of the few movies that includes scenes of students studying for the bar exam, and it specifically focuses on the stress of studying for the bar.[81] It shows the audience that after finishing three years of law school, graduates still have one more hurdle, passing an exam that means success or failure for them.[82] We see the protagonist in class with his friends continuing to study even after graduation, which suggests that there are many things students don’t learn in law school. That law school graduates could lack practical experience and thus be so unready for practice after passing the bar can be a surprise to the public. It recalls the complaints that Vinny Gambini has about his law school education. After years of study, law graduates still have one more exam to take, because jurisdictions do not yet consider them prepared to practice law).[83]

Ultimately, these shows and films offer us a number of different commentaries on law and society through their presentation of legal education and law schools. They offer images of the wealthy as members of firmly established families who send their sons and daughters to venerable institutions like Harvard,  in films such as  Legally Blonde and  Soul Man, some of whose characters view law degrees as ways to continue to enjoy lives of privilege. They give us glimpses of newly arrived and ambitious immigrants who see entry into the legal profession as a means for social mobility as in the television shows Cristela and Mom.  They show us students who as practicing attorneys take up the cause of social change as do Mitchell Erickson in How I Met Your Mother and Elle Woods in Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, and Blonde.[84] They show us the stress and awkwardness of forming the legal mind as in The Paper Chase and to some extent in HTGAWM. Whether these presentations are comedy or drama, they present specific and to some extent unified views of legal education. We can argue with their accuracy, but we should acknowledge that they have an effect on the public’s view of how we train our lawyers.




Christine A. Corcos is the Richard C. Cadwallader Associate Professor of Law at Louisiana State University Law Center, an Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University, and Editor-in-Chief, She received her law degree from Case Western Reserve School of Law.

For more on law and legal issues in the series “Will & Grace,” see her article “Law and Norms and Will & Grace,” forthcoming in the Cumberland Law Review.

Copyright © 2019 Christine A. Corcos

[1] I presented a talk, on which I based this article,  March 17, 2018 at the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities Meeting, 2018, Washington, D.C. Many thanks to Shubha Ghosh and Cassandra Sharp for their helpful comments.

[2] For the most recent rankings of U.S. law schools, see here: U.S. News, 2020 Best Law Schools, at (last visited March 9, 2019).

[3] In spite of the recent college admissions scandal, the glitter of an Ivy League degree is unlikely to diminish. “Ivy and elite schools aren’t worried about the opinions of the masses. That’s not their target audience. The class of people they hope to attract will perpetuate, both financially and reputationally, their elite status. Right or wrong, wealthy and influential people aren’t necessarily concerned with “fixing” a system that benefits them.” Lori Ruggiero, Ivy League Escapes PR Hit From Admissions Scandal, O’Dwyer’s, March 18, 2019, at (last visited March 26, 2019).

[4] (MGM, 2001).

[5] (Twentieth Century Fox, 1973).

[6] (Singa Home Entertainment, 2001).

[7] (CBS, 2013–).

[8] (Warner Brothers, 1981).

[9] (Twentieth Century Fox, 1992).

[10] Id.

[11] “Lockjaw and a Liquid Diet,” first broadcast May 11, 2017 (CBS).

[12] See ABA. Standards and Practices for Legal Education (ABA, 2018/2019), at 16,  also available at (last visited March 5, 2019). What counts as “experiential learning” may include clinical courses, fieldwork, or simulation.

[13] In some states and in the federal courts, a law student may represent clients if she meets certain criteria. See for example the Eastern District Student Practice Rule, which requires that the student be currently enrolled in an ABA-approved law school, have completed at least two semesters of law school, be enrolled in a clinical program, be certified by the law school dean, be familiar with the applicable rules of Federal Rules of Criminal and Civil procedure and the New York Rules of Professional Conduct, and be supervised by an attorney admitted in the jurisdiction ( (last visited March 27, 2019).

[14] (Miramax, 1998).

[15] (Warner Brothers, 1995).

[16] (ABC, 2014-2015).

[17] (Twentieth Century Fox, 1992).

[18] Amanda Brown, Legally Blonde (Plume, 2003).

[19] Stanford does not allow the use of its name in film or for other commercial purposes. See Jon Matsumoto, You’ll Need a Permission Slip For That, L. A. Times, July 22, 2001, at (last visited March 3, 2001).

[20] Compare with the experiences of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, depicted in On the Basis of Sex (Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures, 2018).

[21] For more about Elle Woods as a hero on her own terms, see Christine A. Corcos, “We Don’t WANT Advantages!”: The Woman Lawyer Hero and Her Quest For Power in Popular Culture, 53 Syracuse L. Rev. 1225, 1267-1270 (2003).

[22] (Warner Brothers, 1995). John Katzenbach, son of former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, wrote the novel on which the film is based.

[23] (1990).

[24] “As advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client’s position under the rules of the adversary system.” Preamble: A Lawyer’s Responsibilities, American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct, August 15, 2018, available at:

[25] (1986).

[26] (Minotaur Books, 2014).

[27] See Michael Seigel, Obituary, Tampa Bay Times, at (visited March 25, 2019).

[28] (iUniverse, 2005).

[29] Interestingly, Fansler, like the late Dr. Heilbrun, is a literature professor, not a lawyer, although Fansler’s husband is a district attorney. Anne Matthews, Rage in a Tenured Position, N. Y. Times, November 8, 1992, at   (available at

[30] (Creative Arts Book Company, 2010).

[31] (ECW Press, 1998).

[32] (Ivy Books, 1988).

[33] (last visited April 7, 2019).

[34] Peter Jacobs, Why US News Named Harvard the Best College in the World, But Not in America, Business Insider, Oct. 29, 2014, at

[35] Fox (1997-2002).

[36] USA (2011–). Apparently, a South Korean network began airing a remake of Suits, called Syecheu, beginning in 2018 (

[37] “Josh Just Happens To Live Here!” first aired October 12, 2015, The CW.

[38] (ABC, 2010).

[39] (last visited March 17, 2019).

[40] See University of Notre Dame du Lac v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., 22 A.D. 2d 452 (1965).


[41] First aired May 27, 1961.

[42] Seasons 4-5  (1961-1962).

[43]“The Case of the Meddling Medium,” first aired Oct. 21, 1961.

[44] “The Case of the Posthumous Painter,” first aired Nov. 11, 1961.

[45] First aired Feb. 7, 1963.

[46] “Perry Mason Returns,” first aired Dec. 1, 1985.

[47] First aired Feb. 12, 1989.

[48] See for example “The Case of the Musical Murder,” first aired Apr. 9, 1989. His last appearance in a Perry Mason film was in “The Case of the Jealous Jokester,” first aired Apr. 10, 1995. Interestingly, William R. Moses, who played Malansky, also appeared as Special Agent Lanford in “How To Get Away With Murder.”

[49] Alex Rich, ‘How to Get Away With Murder” Is Just Wrong, Above the Law, Oct. 14, 2014, at (last visited Feb. 19 2018).  On ethnicity and diversity in the show, see Christine A. Corcos, United States: Some Repressentations of Ethnicity, Gender, and Diversity on Law-Related TV Series, in Ethnicity, Gender, and Diversity: Law and Justice on TV 153, 163-165  (Peter Robson and Jennifer L. Schulz, eds., Lexington Books, 2018).

[50] Claire Cohen, Your Next Lecture: How To Get Away With Murder, The Daily Philadelphian, Sept. 25, 2014, at (last visited March 26, 2019).

[51] Id. What she means by lawyers who have been famous in Philadelphia for centuries isn’t completely clear. While many famous lawyers have gotten their starts in the city, the term “Philadelphia lawyer” is not necessarily a term of endearment. In the eighteenth century it meant a lawyer who was “the best trained in the American colonies and exceptionally skilled in the law and rhetoric.” Jodine Mayberry, Philadephia Lawyer, in The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, at By the twentieth century, “the term had taken on a less flattering secondary meaning, to denote a clever attorney skilled in manipulating the law for his clients’ advantage.” Id. See also Robert R. Bell, The Philadelphia Lawyer, a History, 17335-1945 (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1992).

[52] How To Get Away With Murder, “Pilot,” first aired September 25, 2014 (ABC). Keating utters the title of the show during the class, reading from what she has written on the board, “How to get away with murder.” Pete Nowalk, How To Get Away With Murder, Pilot, December 3, 2013, at 7 (available at

[53] The difference in medical and legal training is stark, however. Physicians have a well-defined path to specialization and additional examinations that certify their competence, and most seek additional training and certification.  Attorneys may not, and after they pass the bar in their chosen jurisdiction(s), they might practice nearly any kind of law (the few exceptions include trademark law and admiralty law.

[54] How To Get Away With Murder, “Pilot,” supra, n. 52.

[55] (CBS, 2013–).

[56] First aired March 1, 2018 (CBS).

[57] First broadcast March 8, 2019.

[58] Similarly, the character Wes was originally on the waitlist at Middleton Law School. Through Annalise Keating’s intervention, the school offers him admission. Only on television would such a backstory be plausible.  In real life, a school must have enough spaces and enough financing available for the students in an entering class. Spots ordinarily open when admitted students decide not to attend, thus opening up slots for waitlisted students. Allowing a waitlisted student, particularly one who probably needs some kind of funding, to attend because an adjunct faculty member spoke highly of the student would be highly unusual.

[59] First aired September 27, 2018.

[60] “At all most every law school founded before 1960, a story is told about a past dean who addressed incoming classes by telling them: ‘Look to your left and then to your right, and three years from now, only one of you will still be here.’  The softer version of the story ended ‘and only two of you will still be here.’” J. Gorton Hylton, Look To Your Left, Then Look To Your Right: Marquette University Law School, Fall 1919, Marquette University Law School Blog, Dec. 9, 2010, at (last visited March 5, 2019).

[61] For an overview of law professors in popular culture, see David Ray Papke, Crusading Hero, Devoted Teacher, and Sympathetic Failure: The Self-Image of the Law Professor in Hollywood Cinema and in Real Life, Too, 28 Vt. L. Rev. 957 (2003-2004).

[62] First aired October 11, 2018 (CBS).

[63] First aired November 29, 2018 (CBS).

[64] American Bar Association, Standards and Rules of Procedure for Legal Education, Standard 401, Interpretation 401-2 (2018/2019), at 27-28.

[65] The title of this episode makes reference to the theme song of the 1970s sitcom, The Jeffersons (CBS, 1975-1985) ( See “Movin’ On Up,”  (

[66] Mr. Monk and the Missing Granny, first aired Feb. 6, 2004. (visited March 9, 2019).

[67] See California Penal Code 470, available online at

[68] See the discussion of Mom, infra.

[69] “Family, Trip,” Will & Grace, first aired January 31, 2019 (NBC).

[70] Id.

[71] “Where In the World Is Karen Walker?” first aired Oct. 11, 2018 (NBC).

[72] See Ann E. Marimow, Drugs Are the Downfall of a Brilliant Law Student, Washington Post, Jan. 31, 2013, available at (last visited March 9, 2019). On the possibility that law students turn to drugs and alcohol to deal with the stress of law school, see  Debra S. Austin, Drunk Like a Lawyer: The Neuroscience of Substance Use and Its Impact on Cognitive Wellness, 15 Nev. L.J. 826 (2015).

[73] First aired February 8, 2019 (NBC).

[74] This description is necessarily abbreviated; this essay is not the place for a lengthy examination of various hiring practices or the law applying to these practices. I am simply trying to indicate that academic employment practices are quite different in substance and procedure from what we normally see in popular culture.

[75] See for example the positions listed here. Note that NYU affirms that it is an Equal Opportunity Employer. (last visited March 20, 2019). Both private and public universities must also comply with federal statutes, including Title IX, in order that students be eligible for federal funding for their education. See U. S. Department of Education. Office of Civil Rights, Title IX and Sex Discrimination. October 2015 at (last visited March 20, 2019).

[76] “The Pursuit of Happiness,” first aired February 22, 2019.

[77] New York University,  Policy on Consensual Intimate Relationships. (last visited March 26, 2019).

[78] snarkshark@thelawnerd. March 10, 2018.

[79] Reversal of Fortune (Warner Brothers, 1990).

[80] (Seat Filler Productions, 2004).

[81] Note that My Cousin Vinny also mentions Vinny’s difficulty in passing the bar.

[82] The pass rate for law graduates in various states can differ wildly, as can bar passage rates among law schools. The American Bar Association, one of the major accrediting bodies for U.S. law schools, pays careful attention to the pass rates for law school graduates; schools must meet ABA Standard 316 which requires that a certain number of its students pass the bar within a certain number of years of graduation. See (visited March 3, 2019). Last year the ABA released a report on the percentage of graduates who passed the bar within two years of graduates. See ABA Section of Legal Education Releases Comprehensive Report on Bar Passage Data, March 22, 2018, at (visited March 3, 2019). The U.S. News & World Reports gives the 2019 passage rates for first time bar exam test takers here (

[83] Wisconsin is the only remaining U.S. jurisdiction that allows its law school graduates the privilege of the so-called diploma privilege—the right to practice law on graduation. Other lawyers who have not graduated from a Wisconsin law school must take the Wisconsin bar. “Many states used to have a “diploma privilege”—a set of course and grade requirements which, if fulfilled, allowed one to be admitted to practice without taking a bar exam. Wisconsin is now alone in retaining this privilege.” See University of Wisconsin, Madison, Law School. Diploma Privilege, at (visited April 1, 2019).

[84] (MGM, 2003).