AMC’s “Better Call Saul”, the “Breaking Bad” spinoff, follows the back story of criminal defense lawyer Saul Goodman, played perfectly by Bob Odenkirk. And while the show is extremely entertaining, well written, and perfectly cast, in many ways it is one of the most accurate portrayals of what it really means to be a practicing lawyer. CAUTION: some spoilers follow!
In the series, Saul is not yet Saul but Jimmy McGill, a two-bit con man who turns an opportunity of a mail room job at his brother’s prestigious New Mexico law firm into a legal career. We see his early struggles as he can’t get hired because he went to a crappy law school; he takes an office in a closet in a Korean nail salon and lives the life of a court-appointed criminal defense lawyer. The show’s writers are so into the weeds of the day-to-day practice of this type of law that we even see Jimmy arguing with the contract lawyer coordinator in the courthouse about getting his invoices timely paid and not cut down. When Jimmy decides to get a steadier stream of income, he researches a practice area and sees that elder law could be lucrative due to the number of retirement homes in his state. He begins to do all he can to get the work – sponsoring Bingo games at the homes; giving seminars; handing out business cards.Hustling and networking. Eventually he uncovers a massive fraud that leads to a giant class action suit and gets him a job at white-shoe firm Davis & Main.
This is the “dream job” many law students can only fantasize about: big salary, plush office, company car. But we see that it is not all silver and gold. The show also properly portrays the drudging hours; mindless work; and restrictive environment of “Big Law.” Jimmy is constantly hamstrung by the bureaucracy and levels of supervision. This past week Jimmy reunited with an Assistant DA in the bathroom of the courthouse and he described his job or rather as the government lawyer peppered him with envious questions he didn’t even let Jimmy answer. As he left the bathroom, the ADA muttered “lucky son of a bitch.” The camera showed Jimmy’s clearly saddened, longing face as he missed his former law practice when he would strike deals for clients with the same ADA in the bathroom. Both longed for the other’s place in law.
Then there’s the story line about Jimmy’s ertswhile girlfriend Kim. Kim works for Jimmy’s brother’s law firm, the prestigious Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. Kim’s support for Jimmy got him his job at Davis & Main, who partnered with HH&M on the nursing home class-action case. Jimmy’s antics land her in the doghouse where she is relegated to document review in the basement of the HHM office. She is forced to go through boxes and boxes of material from sun up to midnight looking for key words and phrases in discovery material. Doc Review is a major part of many a young associate’s job at Big Law. It’s kind of like the hazing period of a frat except that this hazing can last three to four years. Kim had worked her way out of that hell-hole just to be thrown back in for her association with Jimmy. While this is a telling statement about the perils of working at a large law firm, the best part of the story line came when Kim decided how she was going to get herself back into her firm’s good graces. She started making lists and notes of people she went to law school with; college with; met at functions; met at networking events; read about in the newspaper, etc. She would then spend her lunch break making calls to drum up business. She doesn’t tell anyone what she’s doing, she just plugs away endlessly. When a law school contact who is in-house counsel to major bank calls her about a major matter, she runs to the garage to do her happy dance.
Along with my friend Scott Limmer, I have a weekly podcast called Reboot Your Law Practice that focuses on developing a law practice for solo and small firm practitioners in today’s tough legal climate. This episode of “Better Call Saul” touched on so many of the things we talk about on the show but Kim’s efforts nearly mirror what Scott and I preach about how to get clients. There is no better source than referrals and recommendations. You may reach out to 100 people and only get one matter but that’s how it starts and you build from there. I couldn’t believe how one episode of a TV show could so perfectly encompass so much about the legal field and that not even be the main part of the story. Of course, I was undoubtedly more in tune to this because of what I do and my show, I get it, but kudos to the show’s writers and technical consultants for giving us such a realistic portrayal of the travails of a law practice.
Law students watching Better Call Saul should see it as a cautionary tale about what is means to be a successful lawyer. While a large prestigious law firm provides money, instant credibility and comfort, the work will be onerous and you will have no autonomy. Witness how Kim’s landing that big client still did not get her out of the basement as the senior partner did not deem it enough to end the banishment. Or how Jimmy is followed around by a much younger lawyer to make sure his writing fits in to the firm’s style down to how many spaces to use after a period.[BTW the summary of legal writing advice she gives Jimmy is spot on as well. I gave the same exact advice to my law students countless times]. And yes being a solo (like Jimmy was) gives you the freedom to do what you want and gives you the gratification of personally helping people through their crises. But you will need to start small and keep your financial expectations low until the practice builds. Lawyers in small struggling practices can also learn from Kim and Jimmy how to take steps to develop clients and to take comfort and solace in the good work they do and the positive impact they can have on their clients’ lives.
As a Breaking Bad addict, I was going to watch Better Call Saul no matter what. I did not expect it to be such an accurate and thoughtful view into what it means to be a lawyer trying to make it in the legal world.