TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

 

WHERE TO LOOK ONLINE

Blogs. Levenson’s advice about free law advice for the entertainment industry being plentiful extends to the Web. There are hundreds of great blogs covering every aspect of our legal system -- and access to their authors is just a mouse click away. Some of our favorites include 26th St. Bar Association and Legal Blog Watch.

FindLaw for Legal Professionals. An enormous depository for all things legal. But make sure you’re in the “legal professional” site with the “lp” in the URL, as opposed to the “consumer” site, or the information you can search for is considerably restricted.

U.S. Department of Justice United States Attorney’s Kids Page. Once you’ve stopped laughing, take a look at the site. It explains what a courtroom looks like and who you’ll find there. It also provides a simple, clear glossary of every courtroom term you’ll need to write a courtroom drama, unless you want to get fancy.

The ‘Lectric Law Library. A more in-depth glossary for those who want to get fancy.

The Smoking Gun. You’re probably not going to get much out of this site from a trial procedure research perspective, except for some serious procrastination time. Weird mug shots, creepy police reports, backstage legal riders for dozens of famous performers, it’s all here. Treat yourself if you’ve been reading about subpoena duces tecum and habeas corpus much too much today.

Trial and Error
Written by Denis Faye

As any writer who’s ever researched the intricacies of trial procedure can tell you, it can be a slippery slope into tedium. “There are tons of books out there on the subject,” admits Loyola Law School Law Professor Laurie Levenson, “that’ll bore the heck out of you.”

If anyone would know, it’s Levenson, who has not only read (and written) quite a few of these books, but is also a William M. Rains Fellow, the Director for the Center for Ethical Advocacy and a former federal prosecutor. As if this weren’t enough, she’s also consulted for several films and television shows, including Legally Blonde, Boston Legal, The Practice, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Jeopardy. “If people have questions,” shrugs Levenson, “I’m happy to answer them.”

Lucky for us, this bonhomie extends to journalists, so Levenson took a few moments to chat with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about trail procedure as represented in film and television. All we can say is, “Marisa Tomei? Really? Who knew?”

What’s the biggest mistake writers make about trials?

Pretending it’s all interesting in the courtroom. There’s a lot of down time. Not every judge has a fascinating personality. Not every trial has a Perry Mason moment. I understand why you have to write it that way, because you’re doing it for different purposes, but realistically, that’s just not how it works.

Also, people just don’t generally, no matter how devastating the cross-examination, confess on the witness stand. People go whole careers without seeing that.

What do writers get right?

That’s a good question. I think they get right that there are two sides to every story.

I think they’re right sometimes that witnesses are very uncomfortable. It’s hard. It’s actually harder to be the witness than it is to be the lawyer. They’re on the hot seat. They’re on the spot. They don’t really control things.

What are your favorite courtroom shows and movies?

Going back how far? I was a Perry Mason junkie growing up. I do confess to turning the channel every now-and-then to Divorce Court, but I didn’t really linger there. And the modern shows I don’t watch at all. I don’t watch the Judge Judys and things like that.

I loved the show Night Court. I sat part-time as a small claims judge. It is as wacky as the show makes it out to be. People look at it and say, “It’s farce.” I looked at it and I did smile, but I also said, “This is real life.” The wackiness is in the people, not so much in the court.

Of the movies, there’s one called Love Among The Ruins [Written by James Costigan]. I think it was a TV movie. And the all-time favorite is To Kill a Mockingbird [Screenplay by Horton Foote]. Fabulous movie. That’s one that I show to my students, and I teach from it all the time. Even though, rarely, will you have a case where you can give a speech like Gregory Peck’s, you dream of that case. And the cross-examination is great. It’s a great movie.

How does it hold up to the scrutiny of reality? Not so much?

It does! I think that’s the one that’s done the best over the ages.

One of the most accurate movies on an evidentiary ruling is -- are you sitting down? -- My Cousin Vinny [Written by Dale Launer]. When [Marisa Tomei] becomes an expert on the car tires, that’s real life. That’s one way of showing you can have real life and have a lot of good entertainment. You need a good actress, you need a good story, but the evidence is not boring.

Which ones do you like the least?

I remember watching Kramer vs. Kramer and jumping up in the audience to yell, “I object!” The rulings were so far removed from the reality of evidence law.

What key piece of advice do you have for writers?

I think you need to talk to your expert three times. One, when you have the idea because they can help you think of things that you haven’t thought of. So brainstorming with your expert. Then, after you’ve written it, run the script by your expert. One of the biggest mistakes I see is in criminal cases, when they’re talking about depositions, there are no depositions in criminal cases, so a little bit of knowledge is a very dangerous thing. And the third is actually asking someone to go out and see the set. I’ve done that and had to say, “No, the jury box is on the other side” or “The witness would never be allowed in this area.” Those little things.

The other thing I want to tell people is you don’t have to be paying for fancy experts. For a lot of law professors who have practiced, this would probably be the most interesting thing they’d have to do all semester. They’d probably come out and do it for free.

What would you like to see happen just once in a courtroom drama?

I’d like to see a judge say, “I don’t know.”

Does that happen in real life?

Sometimes it does. And they say, “I’m just going to do my best here. This is tough. I hope I get it right. Some appellate court will tell me if I don’t.”

I’d like the jurors to be portrayed as people doing their best and working their hardest. Often when you have a show that focuses on the jurors, it’s because they’re involved in some kind of terrible misconduct. Most of the time, jurors don’t want to be there, but once they get there, they really are doing their best. And it’s not like Twelve Angry Men. It’s like Twelve People Who Want to Get Back to Work.

I’d like the writers to sit in on some of these real-life cases -- or watch videos. There was a sentencing in the Green River Killer case; it was some of the biggest drama I’ve ever seen in terms of sentencing and human interaction. If you watch that, you’ll know how to write that scene. Instead, everyone’s watching each other’s movies. That’s like the blind leading the blind.

How can you get access to that stuff?

You can go to advocacy training centers. The networks keep copies of cases they’ve covered.

Why do you think that the courtroom has become such a staple of drama?

Because that’s where you see people’s lives. That’s where you have natural conflicts in people’s lives. There are tales of tragedy. It’s for the same reason that when you mention the O.J. trail, people become fixated. It’s where the drama of life is played out, and we like to be voyeurs on other people’s lives.