Hollywood Or Bust: Why a Proskauer Alum Took a Flying Leap
There’s something revolting about watching a “legal expert” boil down the sum of your professional knowledge into a catchy sound bite. Even a hopeless 1L can handle the issue spotting required for television punditry. Which is exactly what you tell your friends when they mention a guy like Russell Wetanson, who they likely saw on The TV Guide Network. But saying, “I could do that” is like a former Little League All-Star comparing himself to Manny Ramirez—pathetic. And lawyers who think they’re one lucky break away from stardom are living in Fantasy Land. In short, it’s not as easy as you’d think.
If there’s a secret to turning your JD into a television career, nobody knows it. But according to Wetanson, whose Popsquire blog reaches 75,000 monthly readers, much of the training that makes you a lawyer is a liability elsewhere.
“If you think like a lawyer, you become so risk averse that you can’t succeed outside the law,” says Wetanson.
But it’s thinking like a lawyer—sort of—that’s put Wetanson in a position to exploit what he calls the collision between pop culture and the law.
For the most part, the work is simple—producers from CNN or E! call on Wetanson to make a quick appearance. He breaks down the legal issues that plague celebrities into digestible portions any layman can understand. If there’s time, he cracks a joke. The blog, which takes up his mornings, is little more than a touch point for producers and publicists so that Wetanson can earn the kind of currency he needs to parlay his appearances into a full-fledged legal correspondent gig for shows like Entertainment Tonight. That’s the dream—getting there is anything but clear.
Everybody Comes to Hollywood
At first blush, Wetanson sounds like most lawyers when he confesses that his plan was to go to the best law school he could in order to payoff his six-figure debt with a BigLaw salary. And for seven years, most of which was spent as a labor lawyer at Proskauer Rose’s Los Angeles office, things seemed to be going according to plan.
But there was a reason why Wetanson chose UCLA for law school, and it wasn’t the weather.
“As a kid, I knew that I either wanted to be a talk show host or a lawyer,” Wetanson says. “I thought if Geraldo Rivera and Star Jones could do it, I could too. I was the commencement speaker at my law school graduation. But it wasn’t because I had the best grades. This is Los Angeles, and so I actually had to audition. I guess I got the part.”
Of course, the proverbial agent wasn’t there to hear Wetanson compare the rigors of law school to the movie Scream, and with a sheepish grin he concedes that he was “kind of naïve” to think that one could simply be “discovered.”
Like a Lawyer
As a labor lawyer in Los Angeles, Wetanson worked on two kinds of cases: 1) Matters involving celebrities, and 2) what he calls “Ally McBeal Law,” which he refers to as lawsuits about ass-grabbing and name-calling. While his experience with ass-grabbing law gets the most attention as a pundit, it was during a routine matter for Madonna when, as a lawyer, Wetanson realized he’d rather be somewhere else.
“I was making an appearance on a demurrer, and the judge asked if my client was the Madonna,” Wetanson recalls. “I cracked a joke about how we refer to her as Mrs. Ritchie. Everyone chuckled.”
But for Wetanson, the brief laugh underscored a truth he simply wasn’t comfortable with—famous clients are always more interesting.
“It’s weird,” he recalls. “Every lawyer in Los Angeles wants famous clients, but you’re not supposed to admit that, you’re supposed to pretend like it doesn’t matter. But it does.”
At least, it mattered to Wetanson, who concluded that representing famous clients would always take a backseat to chasing down his own Hollywood dreams.
Secret Identities and Alter Egos
Inspired by his work for Madonna, Wetanson began taking improv classes as a “creative outlet,” which soon morphed into a crash-course for TV hosting. But unlike law school, the courses didn’t come with a guaranteed job at the end. And for nearly two years, Wetanson lived kind of a double life.
“I had an agent, I was going on a few auditions in between court appearances, and I had a gig as a reporter for Santa Monica City TV. I was doing all of this on the fly, which meant that I was sort of like Clark Kent—I always had a change of clothes in my car, and I’d switch from reporter to lawyer while running around town.”
But Wetanson wasn’t about to leave Proskauer, and he wasn’t about to tell anyone about his Clark Kent impersonation.
“It’s important to play the game when you’re a lawyer,” he says. “I wanted my bonus; I was working crazy hours for it, and so I adopted this kind of don’t ask, don’t tell policy.”
Fortunately, nobody at the firm asked, probably because Wetanson was working for a TV station few people in Los Angeles actually watched, save for the Proskauer support staff who rode the bus. “They recognized me because my reports aired on the city transit system,” Wetanson jokes.
Between 2005 and 2007, Wetanson’s double life began to pay dividends. He had an agent, and then he got a better agent. He went on more auditions, met publicists, did some red carpet work and managed to pull down some celebrity interviews with people like Beyonce and Matthew McConaughey.
Along the way, he even managed to make it to the final casting round of a career-oriented reality television competition. While a non-disclosure agreement prohibits Wetanson from saying which show, it’s fair to say that it’s one of the few programs on a major network capable of prying fame-seeking bankers and lawyers away from places like Wall Street and BigLaw.
Unfortunately, reality stardom didn’t pan out, and the million-dollar moment when Wetanson could just walk away from the law, never happened. It seldom does. But like a true lawyer, Wetanson had devised a test that would let him know when it was time to leave.
“I promised myself that I would quit when I had enough money put away, and the pursuit of my television career came into material conflict with my practice,” he says. And yes, he really is that much of a law geek.
When it became clear that he was turning down too many auditions and his 2007 bonus was safely in hand, Wetanson walked into his bosses office and broke the news.
“He said he was surprised, but I don’t think he was shocked,” Wetanson remembers. “He wished me well, and then the managing partner asked me if I was crazy.”
Wetanson spent the next five months closing out his cases, and then said goodbye to BigLaw for good.
A few weeks after accompanying Wetanson to a shoot for The TV Guide Network, where he did some “straight up” issue spotting for a story about Paula Abdul, Bitter Lawyer caught up with the pop culture legal expert at one of his many offices—an upscale coffeehouse on the Sunset Strip.
Café Primo is the kind of place where you’re likely to see a celebrity (we spotted Aaron Eckhart, Harvey Dent from The Dark Knight), but not the sort of eatery where it’s okay to acknowledge that you actually recognize someone famous. In other words, it’s a typical Hollywood coffeehouse—a place for power tools—and Wetanson was right at home, just where he always wanted to be.
It’s impossible to say where Wetanson is in the pecking order of television legal experts. This isn’t BigLaw—there’s no matrix for success. But that doesn’t faze Wetanson, nor is he bothered by the fact that he likely works more hours now than he ever did as a lawyer.
“There’s no clock, so it really doesn’t matter, and I’m happy with what I’m doing,” he says. “I never hated being a lawyer, I just didn’t love it as much as what I’m doing now.”
That’s the good news. The bad news is that without billable hours and the financial stability of a Big Firm, Wetanson has no choice but to find a way to make Popsquire a household name. There are precedents, like Jeffrey Toobin and Nancy Grace, but they offer more hope than illumination.
Unlike the law, Wetanson is building a brand around his personality, which is always an endeavor dictated by randomness above all else. However, with the work ethic of a BigLaw associate, he’s hustled to the point of being one celebrity crackup away from breaking through to the next level. The question is, which particular ass-grab or name-call will put him on the map?
See where pop culture and the law collide at Wetanson’s blog, Popsquire.com.