From the minute I heard about the USA network’s new series Fairly Legal, I have been waiting with wide eyed anticipation for its premiere. As I read the series synopsis about Kate Reed, a “recovering attorney who, frustrated with the rigidity of the legal system, quit practicing law to pursue justice from a different angle,” I instantly felt a kinship. I was practicing personal injury attorney until I took a hiatus to raise my children years ago. Rather than rigidity, it was the cost and pace of litigation and what I saw it do to the parties involved, that lead me to pursue a full time career as a mediator when I returned to the workforce. I was curious to see how they could make my new profession exciting enough for a weekly TV series.
USA did it the way they have done it in their other shows; by using the featured profession as a contrivance to take a quirky, funny, or clever character into the lives of complete strangers to solve their problems. Burn Notice (spy), Royal Pains (doctor), In Plain Sight (US marshal), White Collar (con artist), and Psych (a very observant police consultant) all employ the same formula. I don’t know why I thought this show would present a more accurate picture of what mediators really do than Royal Pains does for doctors.
In the first few minutes of the show, our heroine, Kate Reed, mediates a hold up by convincing the robber to accept $50.00 worth of beer and beef jerky to walk away. She then mediates a contract for her deceased father’s law firm with a father and son who don’t see eye to eye on their company’s future. That case spills over into an auto accident DUI involving the son and an African American Yale University bound teenager whose future is jeopardized by the accident. A fourth case, thrown in for its comic relief, involves a wedding proposal gone awry when the bride lost the heirloom engagement ring and the groom sues the confederates he hired to handle his wacky proposal scheme.
As expected, using intellect, wit, and chutzpah, Kate Reed resolves all four farfetched cases by shows end and still has time to sleep with her lawyer ex-husband, do battle with her lawyer/ step mother/boss, have lunch with her lawyer/brother, and shmooze with her lawyer/father’s ashes for good measure. Do you see a pattern here? The only non lawyer in her life is her legal assistant. She is also jailed for contempt, for arriving four minutes late to a hearing, by a judge who seems to take it a little too personally that our heroine left the legal profession to pursue one that is merely “Fairly Legal.”
So how accurate a picture of mediation does Fairly Legal present? Unfortunately, not very. At one point, Kate’s nemesis judge describes a mediator as “a referee in a game with no rules except the ones agreed to by the parties.” Though I don’t know what jurisdiction Fairly Legal takes place in, Florida has had a very well established mediation system for decades. The Florida Supreme Court regulates the training, certification, rules, and discipline of mediators. The judge’s resentment of her defection from law is also not typical. Many lawyers in Florida are also mediators (as are many retired judges). Mediations in Florida are now required in all divorce and foreclosure cases and ordered frequently by judges in most other cases.
Kate’s mediation skills are also a bit exaggerated. Mediators will generally present an opening statement to set the right tone and explain the process to the parties. Kate jumps right in as if the parties know exactly what to do and in true TV Land fashion, the parties respond in kind. Also, 1 or 2 pointed questions are rarely enough to elicit all of the issues involved in a conflict. It usually takes some time and careful reading of the parties’ interaction and body language for a mediator to get to the heart of the matter and help the parties craft a solution. Perhaps in order to save time, Kate conducts all the mediations with the parties in one room. Though it can be done this way for the right cases, most mediations require some private meetings, called caucuses, with the individual parties.
Much like the popular courtroom dramas on TV, Fairly Legal must condense the ‘legal’ part in order to make room for the drama and comedy. A real mediation can take several hours to several days, not the minutes the show suggests. Just as a real trial is disappointingly boring to the average viewer who grew up with Law and Order, I fear a mediation in real time would probably bore most people after seeing the rapid fire pace with which our Kate zips through and solves people’s problems.
So what do I think about the show overall? On the one hand, I am grateful to USA for marketing mediation as means of resolving conflict and saving me a lot of time and expense doing so. Rallies were held in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco promoting the series with participants sporting signs that read “Get Kate, Mediate” and “No Litigation, Only Mediation.” Fairly Legal will popularize a profession that is still new and not well understood. On the other hand, I worry that Fairly Legal will do for mediation what LA Law and its progeny did for the legal profession; create unreasonable expectations of glamour, excitement, and success in the client’s mind that few in the professional will be able to live up to.
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