[Ed. Note: There’s no shortage of lawyers writing scripts in Hollywood. (We’ve previously interviewed several of them here, here and here.) But few are former public defenders who are telling the story of the underdog—the overworked, underpaid criminal defense attorney who takes on clients too poor to hire a “real lawyer.” That’s the job of David Feige, creator of TNT’s television series Raising the Bar, which is currently airing its second season on Mondays at 10/9c.
Feige developed Raising the Bar with television mega-producer Steven Bochco of Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue fame. Bitter Lawyer recently caught up with Feige to get both the real-life and “We Know Drama” story on public defenders.
Click here for our exclusive interview with two of the actors from Raising the Bar]
Name and current title?
David Feige: Creator and writer, TNT’s drama series Raising The Bar.
Where did you go to law school?
Wisconsin. I had no doubt that I wanted to be a public defender (PD). I wanted to leave law school with my ideals intact, and I didn’t want to give myself all that debt that so many lawyers have. I think that debt just leads them to one of those factories.
So you weren’t interested in private practice?
I spent a summer at Dewey Ballantine, which I guess is now Dewey LeBoeuf. One summer of lifestyle law was enough for me.
Is this the career path you imagined for yourself, going from public defender to TV writer?
Not at all. In fact, I’ve often said that my greatest strength is low expectations. I like writing a lot. I’ve done a bunch of writing, some op-ed stuff and some magazine pieces. It’s fun because you get to sit in a comfy chair with a nice view (and maybe a beer), and you get to dwell on these very narcissistic topics, and you get paid. That’s great, right?
That said, it was never really my aspiration. I really wanted to be a PD. Writing came as an afterthought. I started writing to clear up some of the misperceptions about PDs. [Those misperceptions] are so widespread and corrosive. That was what compelled me to write.
What are the misperceptions?[Laughing]
Let’s take the unnamed behemoth of a law show, which has more spin-offs than you can count. Take that show as a starting point. In every episode that involves a PD, you take a trip to Riker’s [Island Jail]. There’s always this schluby-looking guy who is the PD. And he doesn’t say anything. Nothing. He just lets the DA run over his client, and at the end of the interrogation, he either says, “Better tell ‘em’” or, “Don’t tell him,” but his client does anyway because he doesn’t explain that he has a right to remain silent. Who is that lawyer? That’s not real.
Then when you meet people and tell them what you do, you always hear something like, “How can you defend those people?” or, if the person asking is being nice, they end up being very patronizing—like you’re not a real lawyer. They say something like, “I’m sure it’s good experience.” And they always assume you can’t get a real job. That’s not the case.
I was chief of the trial division for the Bronx PD, and we got a lot of really good candidates who wanted to work there. And we turned down people from top schools, including Harvard and Yale.
You’re well-known for your book, Indefensible: One Lawyer’s Journey into the Inferno of American Justice. The book wasn’t well received by at least two of your contemporaries, who unsuccessfully sued you for defamation. How was it received by the legal community in general?[Laughing]
Yeah well, I guess those two lawyers didn’t like it. But they lost.
By and large, the book was really well received. I got some very interesting back channel feedback from the judges, too. One of the law secretaries told me that a judge said, “I don’t do that.” And the secretary said, “You do, your honor.”
But for most lawyers, especially a lot of private lawyers, the book was a real eye opener. A lot of them told me they had no idea it was that bad in the criminal justice system, and I think it was a good thing to explain that to them.
How did Raising The Bar come about? Was your book instrumental in making the television show?[Laughing]
The book most clearly led to the show because I sent it to Steven Bochco. To my amazement, he read it. And he called me, which was very nice, and he said he loved it, but that there was no show here. I asked him why, and he said that nobody was going to care about lawyers who defend people who have done bad things.
I walked away from the phone call thinking that it was cool that Steven Bochco liked my book. That’s it. But then on a lark, maybe because I’m such a relentless guy, I sent Steven what he later called the longest f**king email he’s ever seen. I was basically arguing with him, saying I thought it would be a good show. And he said would should talk.
He wanted to show both sides—the PDs and the DAs. I told him that was fine, but that the PDs needed to be the heroes. And he said that’s good because TNT wanted to do the show. I never had to pitch it. So Steven sent me a plane ticket and told me to come to Hollywood to see if I could write.
And it turned out that you could write?
That’s still an open question. I think I’m getting better, but I look back at the pilot, and I just wince. But I’ve gotten a few episodes under my belt, and it’s going well. But, hey, I didn’t even know what Final Draft was when I started. Steven had to install it on my computer and told me I could figure it out.
What was your best moment as a lawyer?
There’s a moment that I wrote about in the book. When I was a baby lawyer, I was in front of a judge we called “Blog, The Cave Judge” because he had this weird way of speaking… This was before the ‘interweb’ mind you. So it was just a silly name we had for this judge.
Anyway, it was late afternoon, and I was arguing this meritorious motion. I had been crapped on all day. I had nothing left. The judge starts denying my motion. And I go nuts. He says, “Do not tempt me. There’s nobody I’d rather hold in contempt than you, Mr. Feige.”
But I turned my back to him, and I put out my hands to the bailiff, like “go ahead and cuff me.” I just stood there. The court was silent. And the judge goes, “No, no, no—you won’t goad me into holding you in contempt.”
We had this moment of understanding. He was never going to do it. You could just tell. It was really empowering as a lawyer.
What was your worst moment as a lawyer?
I think one of the worst moments was when a judge basically conned me. Or, I guess you can say he tricked or hoodwinked me, if you like. He kind of gave me the wink and encouraged me to wave a jury trial, which I convinced my client to do. So we had a bench trial, and the judge just nailed my client. He convicted him and gave him 15 years. He’s still in jail, and I take responsibility for that one. That was one of the lowest moments I had. It was just soul searing.
You know, there is no margin for error in criminal work. Defending guilty people is easy and it’s lovely. It’s defending innocent people that tries your soul. Either they go through hell and they are acquitted, or they get convicted, and it’s horrifying and you and they have to live with that.
What’s a typical day like for you now? Is it better being a writer/producer than a lawyer?
It’s different. It sounds strange. Being a PD was the best job I ever had and ever will have. I loved that job, and it was awesome. It was deeply soulful and full of struggle, and wins and losses, and the stakes aren’t higher anywhere else. By definition, it’s about liberty and freedom. But it’s hard work and utterly exhausting.
Life here is almost absurd by comparison. I wake up, and I write. Most days are meetings. I give notes. I check out the sets. I talk with the actors. I love our show, and I’m really proud of it, but it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of being a PD.
Do you think about going back?
Yeah, I do. I went to the University of Chicago for undergrad, and you spend a lot of time down there thinking about what is a good life, and how you should live it. I feel like I’ve been given an enormous opportunity [with the show] to speak to a large audience. I have things to say. That’s not something that you can pass up. I think we have an obligation to touch lives and change attitudes. And I hope I do that through impactful, dramatic storytelling.
But also, I’m old and fat, so hustling around courthouses and appearing in front of imbecilic judges who are mercurial, venial and vindictive… well, I don’t know if I would have the patience anymore. I was never one who was good at holding my tongue, and the way I am, I’d probably end up in jail for contempt.
The legal drama is one of the oldest TV genres out. How do keep a legal show fresh and modern against all the high-concept shows that dominate the airwaves?
First, there aren’t a lot of legal shows these days—aside from the aforementioned, unnamed behemoth. But I would say that our show is radically different in many ways. Most importantly, it’s accurate. But we’re depicting something you don’t see a lot on TV.
We get a lot of the feedback that judges aren’t really like that. I always tell them to go down to your local criminal court, and they’ll find people who make “Judge Kessler” seem like a moderate.
But mostly what I like is that we don’t cheat time. The cases don’t go from arraignment to trial in an hour. Cases that go to trial get kicked around for a while.
If you watch most lawyer shows, you’d think that only rapes and murders occur in the criminal justice system. But there are over 300,000 arrests per year in New York City. There are 30,000 arrests for marijuana alone, and a lot of it is simple possession.
The point is that there’s this perception we get from writer laziness. They skew the story to give it high stakes, but the shows aren’t representative. We do lots of little cases. There is a story coming up next week where we dramatize a case with a $75 fine. That’s what the system really is. The truth is that there are stakes in all these cases. But it is more complicated to find that drama and to explain it to an audience.
What was the casting process like?
I didn’t have a ton of input there, which was a good thing because it was all very new to me. Steven wanted Mark-Paul Gosselaar to play the “me” character, and I thought that was great.
But when we cast some of the supporting roles, I got into it a little more. I remember when we cast Melissa [Sagemiller], I saw the tape and I remember saying, “I hate that woman, she’s perfect for the prosecutor.” She just has that icy DA vibe.
Any word on a season three for the show?
Not yet. I’m going to wait for the court to render a decision on that one.
Did you ever consider yourself a Bitter Lawyer?
Oh, God, no. Just opposite. Being a PD is fundamentally romantic. There’s something really romantic about getting your ass kicked everyday and coming back with a smile on your face. It’s the triumph of optimism over experience. Fury was a big part of my experience, but not bitterness.