Bar None: How to Get Away with Murder Pilot

Or Legal Ethics and What It’s Actually Like To Be in Law School

ABC's How to Get Away with Murder

I’m going to start this off with a little bit of brutal honesty: I hate this show.

Alright everyone, calm down.

How to Get Away With Murder has received excellent reviews since the very beginning. The first season got an 86% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and Viola Davis has won numerous awards, including an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, for her performance as Annalise Keating. It is likely safe to say that it was one of the most popular shows of last year and continued Shonda Rhimes’ enviable hit-streak.

I have been unable to watch more than one or two episodes, because the whole concept is so absurd that makes me want to start a dumpster fire. This is the second time that I’ve watched the pilot, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pound two glasses of Sauv Blanc in 45 minutes to get through it.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show’s pilot, here’s a brief synopsis: Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) is a criminal law professor and defense attorney who takes on five of her first year law students to help her with her high-profile trials. The show shifts between three months in the past, in which the law students work under her intense and critical eye, and the present, in which four of her students are covering up the murder of Keating’s husband. Presumably the first season acts to connect these two events somehow. For more details, this episode is currently on US Netflix. Otherwise, be prepared for some minor spoilers.

While there are a lot of technical procedural issues in the trial court that I would love to nitpick here, there are two broader issues that this show highlights: legal ethics and the life of a first year law student. I know these don’t sound as sexy and fun as murdering a person and burning his body in the woods, but bear with me.


Legal Ethics: Why It’s Malpractice to Let First Year Students Work on Your Case

Just a quick terminology note before I get into it, I occasionally will refer to first year law students as “1Ls.” This is how we track years in law school, and it’s not a commonly recognized term from what I understand. So there you go.

One of the first things that happens in this pilot is Keating recruiting for her firm. These students are allowed to interview her client, pose legal strategies, and in a myriad of ways become intimately involved with the trial process. Essentially, this client was on trial for attempted murder because she was her boss’s mistress, and she’s being accused of giving him an aspirin to which she knew he was very allergic.

This is not only totally dangerous to the case, but could get Keating disbarred.

Lawyers have ethical standards by which they have to abide. This is comforting, because you don’t want your lawyer to be able to, for example, talk to just about anyone they want to about your case. It’s also comforting because you don’t want people who have no idea what they’re doing making life or death decisions for you in court. That’s the reason they have to pass an incredibly painful test—the bar exam—in order to be able to represent you in court.

This is why, unless you’re representing yourself, you can’t argue a case in court. There’s a rule against it everywhere that prevents the unauthorized practice of law. It’s because doing that could ruin someone’s life. For the most part, 1Ls know roughly as much about law as the general public. Unless you want your cousin Joe who works at the gas station—or even your cooler accountant cousin Sharon—to be the same guy who decides whether or not you go to jail, you’re not going to want to trust a 1L with your legal fate.

Also, lawyers have a duty of confidentiality to their clients. Any totally sexy topic like this clearly deserves more time and attention, so let me break it down a little. The duty of confidentiality prevents your lawyer from discussing your case with anyone unless that person is also in their law firm or also working on your case. Conversations between you and your lawyer are called privileged communications and can’t be used in court. It’s important not only because you don’t want strangers in your business, but also because (especially in a criminal case) anything you say to other people can be used against you. You’ve heard Miranda warnings in literally every police procedural show, right? “Anything you say can and will be used against you?” So hypothetically, imagine again that the crowd of law students are interviewing the client. She says totally by accident, “I didn’t mean to kill him when I gave him the pill he was poisoned with, I just wanted to make him sick.” Any one of those students could be called into court by the other side and compelled to testify against the client because what she said to them isn’t privileged at all. In most places, that client could be implicated in some degree of homicide just for that statement. So Keating would have torpedoed her entire case just by letting students talk to her client.

Sound messed up? Yeah, maybe. But that’s the way the system works, and it’s assumed that lawyers should know better. That’s why Keating could lose her license over a boneheaded move like that.


Life of a 1L: Booze, Tears, More Booze, More Tears

Early in the pilot episode, Keating tersely tells Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King) to blow off her torts class if she wants to continue to excel in her criminal law class. This is ridiculous, and it really highlights why the show on a basic level doesn’t make any sense to anyone with even cursory contact with law school.

You wouldn’t know it looking at this show, but there is actually more than one class during 1L year. In addition to criminal law, first year law students also have to worry about classes in something like 6 other subject areas over the course of the year. All of these courses likely have intense professors who will grill anyone at a moment’s notice over the course of the class. Additionally, your final exam in most of these classes will determine your grade for the whole course. The stakes are pretty high. Blowing off your other classes is, in a word, stupid.

There is an easy way to fix a lot of the conceptual problems with this show: change the gang of beautiful murderers from law students to first year associates at Keating’s law firm.

See, this would actually make sense that they would be so involved in her cases and able to participate in the legal process (the nonsense of which is noted above). It would also make sense that they would be eschewing all of their other life activities for her case work alone.

Anyway, I digress.

There is one thing that this episode gets right though: the booze. They pretty much start overhand throwing alcohol at you from the beginning in law school. It’s universally understood that your event will be about 60 times more successful if you budget for alcohol, so that’s often the tactic. It’s probably a perk meant to distract us from how miserable our lives are, and it is super effective.

I get the appeal of this show. I really do. But it legitimately worries me that people might think there is somehow a grain of truth buried in there somewhere. So long as everybody takes it as the profound fiction that it is, I will sleep better at night.