Think back to your first year out of law school. (Or, for law students, think ahead to what you expect it will be like.) Long hours, unreasonable demands, stress, humiliation and massive debt intertwined with constantly getting laid, hot colleagues, and sexy job assignments, right?
“[Being at Weil] certainly isn’t like anything that I saw on TV,” litigation partner Lori Pines once said.
And she’s right. Lawyers have long been interesting to viewing audiences, but they are never accurately represented. And television dramas set in law firms are far from ever being true-to-life. In fact, no profession-based shows are realistic. But why the hell should they be? It’s simply not entertaining.
Writer/producer David Hemingson is trying to take inspiration from his infancy as a lawyer and spin it into highly rated entertainment. A former attorney who quit cold turkey and launched a TV career, writing for comedies like Family Guy, How I Met Your Mother and Just Shoot Me, Hemingson is now tapping into his roots. He created a new legal dramedy, The Deep End, which premiered in 2010.
Hoping to rise above monikers like, “the Grey’s Anatomy of legal shows,” The Deep End follows a cast of eager first-year associates at a prestigious Los Angeles law firm. The fictitious firm of Sterling Huddle Oppenheim & Craft is introduced through the eyes of a fresh-faced Boy Scout from Columbia Law (Matt Long) on his first day.
Rounding out his start class: The neurotic tier-2 pushover from Case Western Law (Napoleon Dynamite‘s Tina Majorino), the English cocksman from Cambridge (Ben Lawson), the alpha dog from USC Law (Mehcad Brooks), and the confident, manipulative legacy-lawyer from Stanford Law (Leah Pipes). And bonding them together is a charming-yet-pathological managing partner (Titanic‘s Billy Zane).
Just your typical Big Firm first-years. Only with better fashion sense—and better-looking faces.
We caught up with Hemingson to talk about his life as a lawyer and how the scribe managed to pair comedy with drama in a world we all know too well.
You used to be a lawyer. Where did you go to law school? Where did you practice? What kind of law did you practice and for how long?
I went to Columbia Law School (class of 1990), and I was an entertainment associate at Loeb and Loeb in Century City for three years, three months and two days—but who’s counting?
What was your best moment as a lawyer?
The day I started. It was all possibility then. I would also say some of the pro bono work I did was deeply gratifying. I loved it when I first started drafting stuff that didn’t get bounced by the partners. But mostly I was constantly drowning in more work than I could complete in three lifetimes, with very little guidance.
What was your worst moment as a lawyer?
I was doing a work-out on a single-picture film financing loan that had gone into default, and George Harrison was the executive producer of the movie. He had signed a personal guarantee back-stopping the indebtedness on the picture, and I had to enforce the guarantee. I believe he had been victimized by attendant circumstances, but I was repping a bank that wanted its money, so I had to get on the phone and demand it.
I am a huge Beatles fan. Seriously. I am a ridiculously enthralled devotee of their music. I consider them to be both commercial artists and creative geniuses of the highest order. Now this might have been the transatlantic connection, but on that phone call that day, I distinctly remember George Harrison calling me an asshole.
I still have not recovered from this.
Was there a moment where you said, “I’ve got to get the f**k out of here”? What happened? How did you get out?
I had been pulling eighty hour weeks for a couple of years, grinding away on these giant deals, and there was this senior associate at another firm (I had summered there my second year) who was my best friend. We both wanted to leave the practice, but couldn’t gather the balls to do it. Instead, we used to go down to our buddy’s house in Orange County and talk about all the stuff we were gonna do when we had enough cash to bankroll our departure from our respective firms. Then we’d get baked and jump off of our buddy’s roof into his swimming pool.
One day I was at home working on something at 1 a.m. and I got this phone call. (Never a good sign, right?) It was my friend’s fiancée. She was calling to tell me that my friend had fallen during a rock climbing trip in Joshua Tree and died instantly.
All that planning we had been doing on that sunbaked rooftop—it meant nothing. Life doesn’t wait for you to sack up. Right then and there, I decided I was done.
How did you become a writer?
I just leapt. Before I left the practice, I began analyzing sitcoms—basically figuring out the structure of stories on Friends and Seinfeld and teaching myself how to replicate the rhythm. So I quit the firm and I wrote and wrote and wrote—spec script after spec script. I ate a ton of Top Ramen and drove my Geo Storm into the ground. Within about a year, I’d landed a job on Nickelodeon writing for a show called The Adventures of Pete and Pete. That led to a gig at Disney writing animation. Then I wrote a Larry Sanders spec that got me my agent. (We still work together.) My agent got me to primetime.
You’ve written both sitcoms and hour-long drama—as well as both live-action and animation. What’s your preferred format?
I love the hour-long because the program time for primetime sitcoms has been reduced to approximately 20 minutes, and it’s really, really hard to tell a story in that much time. That’s why I loved working for Family Guy and American Dad. Seth MacFarlane goes straight for the funny, and although story is nice, it’s not indispensable. He wants to make you laugh. Period. And he succeeds.
If you want to be funny and tell a story—especially if you enjoy working with a large ensemble, which I do (my first series, Kitchen Confidential, starring Bradley Cooper, had a cast of 8 regulars)—the hour is the way to go. I also like a degree of drama underpinning my interpersonal relationships.
How does your experience as a lawyer influence the show? In other words, will any lawyers who worked with you recognize characters, events, stories, etc.?
My years practicing law are essential to the show. They helped me frame the attitudes and the attributes of the characters. The hopes, the fears, the grinding hours, the bed-hopping and the back-stabbing. All of it was inspired by firsthand events.
Regarding specific people I worked with… as a lawyer talking to other lawyers right now, you guys will understand when I say: “Any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental.”
What’s a typical day for a show creator? Is it better than practicing law?
The typical day for a show creator is a lot like practicing law, in that you’re constantly being bombarded by a thousand details and everything is on an incredibly short fuse. The difference is that, as a show creator, you get to advance a creative vision that is not wed to precedent or contained by the four corners of a deal.
That being said, the network and the studio have distinct and firmly held opinions on everything from casting to writing to editing, so life is a constant negotiation.
2009 has been widely regarded as the worst year in BigLaw. Ever. More than 12,000 lawyers and support staff lost their jobs last year. Did the economic collapse make its way into the show at all?
In the opening interview montage—the scene in which the first-years are being introduced—three out of four of them talk about their crushing educational debt, so we do acknowledge how much they need the job. In addition, Rowdy Kaiser, the recruiting associate, is called out by the senior partner for lining up with the current, unethical managing partner (played by Billy Zane). Rowdy replies: “I’m doing my job. I’m keeping my job.”
Bottom line: The spectre of getting fired stalks everybody at the firm all the time.
When you write a legal show, you’re obviously going up against a popular, successful genre with beloved shows like The Practice, Law & Order to LA Law, just to name a few. Is that rich legal history on television a blessing or a curse?
A little of both. The history of law shows is so rich that it’s a little daunting. But then again, tone is everything when you’re trafficking in any show with a procedural/technical bent. In the last 50-plus years of TV, the medical show has tonally run the gamut from Dr. Kildaire to House to Greys [Anatomy] to Scrubs.
Given that The Deep End is a dramedy, and it’s focusing on the interpersonal relationships between the first-years, I feel like we’re tonally a little different than those that have come before—although I am a HUGE David E. Kelley fan and have been lucky enough to have had some very nice conversations with him of late.
While the show is shot in Dallas, it’s really supposed to be Los Angeles. Is BigLaw culture different in LA, than say, New York, Boston, DC, or San Francisco?
Not that I remember. Having worked in NY and LA, I think BigLaw culture is about working your ass off no matter what your time zone is. The degree to which you are allowed latitude on your billables or encouraged to do pro bono—I assume those are firm-specific things.
When a trailer for the show came out online, it made the rounds of the legal blogs. One kind of funny gripe we found at Above The Law (a blog that caters to associates working in BigLaw) is that the actors in the show are way too attractive. Were your characters ugly in the first draft?
When I created the characters, I was thinking entirely in terms of personality. All that mattered to me was that the characters represented the archetypal personalities that you encounter in the first-year class (and among the partners).
With regard to the attractiveness of the actors portraying the characters, I have only one answer: I cast the best actors I could find, and they each have wonderful and distinct voices that I feel fortunate to write for. The fact that they are all good looking…. that’s TV. Look at Greys. The doctors are all smoking hot. How many smoking hot doctors do you know?