Craig Turk, Television Writer/Producer

Bitter Success Interviews, Lawyer

Current title and employer?

Supervising Producer, Private Practice

Sounds fancy, but what do you really do?

I’m a television writer. Basically, I sit around with the other members of our show’s staff (on Private Practice, there are 8 of us) and try to come up with stories that will keep you from switching over to Ice Road Truckers.

When we hit on something that seems like it could work—and then check to make sure that it wasn’t done previously on, say, ER or The Love Boat—we break it out scene-by-scene and fill in the details of who does what to whom.

Sometimes, the process is pretty slow, either because you can’t figure out how to credibly get where you want to go, or because you’re distracted by the toys that are placed strategically around our writers’ room. I’m sure some stoney guy on Starsky & Hutch just wanted to play Hungry, Hungry Hippos at work and found an article about children’s playthings stimulating adult creativity for cover, but now it’s an accepted thing: writers need toys.

Anyway, we eventually get the story broken, and then one of the writers goes off into a dark hole somewhere and cranks out the actual script. This is the fun, coming up with witty dialogue part—it’s what everyone imagines the job to be. In reality, it’s a relatively small part of the process; you spend more time breaking the stories, and then re-writing drafts, than you do sitting in Starbucks, stroking your chin, plucking bon mots out of the air. But for the few days you’re off doing it, you do get to act all precious and artist-like, telling anyone who dares to call before noon or criticize you for drinking during the day that you’re “on script.”

Now, that’s how it works on Private Practice. (For those of you with a Y chromosome, that’s the spin-off from Grey’s Anatomy.) On Boston Legal, the show that I worked on for the past few seasons, it was pretty different.

Basically, we, the writers, came up with story ideas and pitched them to our boss, David E. Kelley. Given that David has written, conservatively, nine million hours of television, it wasn’t always an easy sell. But, if he did like something, we just sat down and wrote it. There wasn’t really a writers room, or any kind of hand-holding. And it was very much survival of the fittest.

If what you wrote was good, you’d get to go downstairs a couple of weeks later and watch James Spader and Captain Kirk say your words. If what you wrote was decent, you’d get to watch them say David’s words in a few of the locations you specified in your draft. Not quite as thrilling, but David was always gracious about giving credit, so your parents and friends came away thinking you actually knew how to write. If what you gave to David was not very good, he just never said anything, your name didn’t appear on any scripts, and people secretly wondered what you did all day.

Now, on any show, in addition to writing, you do have some responsibilities as a producer: casting actors, working with directors on set, editing, etc. It’s an interesting part of the job, and probably as important to the final product as the actual writing. But, unless you’re talking to the ghost of Aaron Spelling, don’t ever let anyone describe themselves to you as a television “producer.” It would be like the guy sitting down the hall from you right now describing himself as an oral advocate, or a strategic litigation consultant. It’s part of what you do, but if it’s how you identify yourself, you’re an asshole.

Law school? Class rank? Law review?

No offense intended to the fine folks behind Bitter Lawyer, but this question is a little lame, in a freshman-year-of-college-what’s-your-SAT-score kind of way. And, I think, it’s also kind of irrelevant.

Where you went to law school, and how you did—not to mention whether you got suckered into sub-citing articles on grazing rights and ERISA reform for lazy professors in exchange for “prestige”—probably won’t matter much if you’re about to switch careers. I know that I spent the last two years writing fart jokes for William Shatner on Boston Legal, and my sub-par performance in Contracts almost never came up.

All that said, I went to Harvard, did pretty well, but the Law Review wanted nothing to do with me.

At what firms did you work?

Wiley, Rein & Fielding (Washington, D.C.)
O’Melveny & Myers (Los Angeles)

Practice area?

In D.C., I specialized—and by “specialized” I mean sat on the same floor as partners who actually knew something about—election law & government ethics. It was actually pretty interesting, as legal work goes.

In L.A., I did straight, soul-sucking, spirit-crushing corporate litigation. Great firm, great people, but the actual work was just horrendous.

Worst memory of being a lawyer?

Huge patent case in front of the International Trade Commission. Based on the fact that I know nothing about the absurdly complicated and esoteric issues being litigated, I am tapped for the trial team.

Since I just moved away from Washington, D.C. two months earlier, I’m not eager to leave L.A. and go back, especially in the dead of winter. And when I find out I’m joining a group of associates from my firm who call themselves, unselfconsciously, the “law dogs,” I weep a little.

I show up and am immediately detailed to the 24-hour war room. The war room that is staffed, exclusively, by the law dogs and me. Mind you, there are four big firms, dozens of lawyers, on our side of this trial. But none, apparently, are hardcore enough to deal with the endless motions in limine and tough-to-get dinner reservations for the partners that becomes the stuff of our daily existence.

While most of the other attorneys show up for our once-a-day strategy sessions and then go about the difficult business of stretching their per diems to cover food, booze, and entertainment, I’m trapped billing 100+ hours a week. The law dogs and I trade off sleeping every other night, maybe every third, in shifts. This goes on for the entire month of December, right up until Christmas, a holiday that even the scroogiest quasi-judicial federal magistrate respects.

I fly back to L.A., wiped out and incredibly bitter, intent on quitting—only to find out that we have to do something called “findings of fact.” Basically, I have to relive the entire miserable experience, going back through the trial transcript and figuring out what the hell happened, and whether we had proved our case. This meant another month in a windowless war room, four more 100-hour weeks.

Finally, mercifully, it came to an end. I took the day off after we handed in our final papers, and never walked back into my office again.

Best memory of being a lawyer?

Interestingly, my best memory came as a result of the worst memory described above. After I left the firm, I was invited to and wound up attending the wedding of one of the law dogs. As I was totally getting it done on the dance floor, I literally bumped into (his fault, not mine) one of the partners who I’d worked for on the ITC case. He smiled, asked what I’d been working on. I told him that I’d just finished doing a political campaign, and had also sold my first script. He gave me a fake, I’m-impressed head nod, then asked how that was impacting my hours. At first I thought he was kidding—I’d left the firm fully two years earlier. But he wasn’t.

When I broke the news to him, he didn’t seem to care much, but asked if I’d call the firm’s office manager and tell her officially that I wasn’t coming back. “We could use your office,” he told me. Turns out, since I hadn’t boxed up and taken home any of my stuff, the firm had kept my office for me, assuming I’d be back. I liked imagining desperate partners, stopping by my office on random Friday afternoons, only to find an empty chair.

Please describe your “I have to get the f*** out of here” epiphany?

I knew on my very first day at a firm that I had made a mistake—there was no new-job buzz. I finally had a secretary, business cards, and access to unlimited redwelds, but all I could do was look out my window into the window of the rehab center three feet across the alley and wish that I was certified to pack peoples’ knees in ice. However, it took a profoundly miserable experience like the ITC trial, and the realization that I couldn’t stomach what other lawyers cherished, to force me to look for something else.

Any advice for Bitter Lawyers out there looking to change careers?

Jump. It’s hard when you have real responsibilities—family, lease on a new 7 Series, whatever—and I suppose I should add some sort of caveat so I don’t wind up getting sued and having to pay off some jackass from Stanford’s loans. But, think about it: Have you ever heard someone say that they really regret having left a firm? At the very least, you won’t be billing hours anymore. You might be making Fancy Feast nachos for a while, but it’s worth it. Figure out what you’d do if you could do anything, and at least give it a shot.

It’s a huge cliché, but I think essentially true: life’s too short to hate what you do.

Read more about Craig Turk in the ABA Journal and about his involvement in Sen. John McCain’s campaign in TV Guide.

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