In There a Lawyer in the (White) House?: Portraying Lawyers on The West Wing

LAWYERS IN YOUR LIVING ROOM!: LAW ON TELEVISION, Michael Asimow, ed., 2009

UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09-06

20 Pages Posted: 18 Feb 2009 Last revised: 12 Mar 2009

See all articles by Keith A. Rowley

Keith A. Rowley

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law

Date Written: December 30, 2008

Abstract

Ever since "L.A. Law" burst triumphantly onto the small screen in 1986 and the "Law & Order" franchise was born four years later, shows featuring lawyers have become a staple of American prime time network television. Sadly, many of the shows in which lawyers were or are the central characters -- "Ally McBeal," "The Practice," "Boston Legal," "Shark," "Damages," and, most recently, "Raising the Bar," to name a few -- have depicted lawyers as caricatures who appear to be wholly unfamiliar with (and fairly unconcerned about) legal ethics and to view the law as a game to be won or a puzzle to be solved -- sometimes coincidentally for their client's benefit, but mostly for personal satisfaction. Standing in stark contrast to these cynical, self-indulgent, melodrama-prone, pomo-lawyers are those we meet from the White House Counsel's office of fictional President Jed Bartlet during the historic seven-year run of "The West Wing." While several of the show's more central characters -- Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman, Communications Director Toby Ziegler, and Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn -- had law degrees, and some had substantial private-practice experience before entering politics, we saw them as policy advisors and political operatives. By contrast, the White House Counsel's office lawyers generally offered advice about matters of law, rather than policy or politics. As such, they are free to check their personal politics -- two of the lawyers featured during the series (Ainsley Hayes and Joe Quincy) were Republicans in a Democractic White House and a third (Lionel Tribbey) was substantially more liberal than the president on a number of issues -- at the door, to serve the president and his senior advisers and to represent the Office of the President.

Keywords: popular culture, television, lawyering, legal ethics, attorney-client relations, attorney-client privilege, Supreme Court clerk, White House Counsel

JEL Classification: K10, K40

Suggested Citation

Rowley, Keith A., In There a Lawyer in the (White) House?: Portraying Lawyers on The West Wing (December 30, 2008). UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09-06; UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09-06. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1345272

Keith A. Rowley (Contact Author)

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law ( email )

4505 South Maryland Parkway
Box 451003
Las Vegas, NV 89154
United States
(702) 895-4993 (Phone)
(702) 895-2482 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://www.law.unlv.edu/faculty/rowley/

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