Helicopter Lawyers

by Diane Dimond on October 11, 2008

Tipping The Scales of Justice?

Tipping The Scales of Justice?

Ahem. I’d like to get the attention of the American Bar Association, please. While I’m at it, the attention of each of the State chapters of the ABA too.

Are you there? Good. Listen, at the risk of getting some of my lawyer friends mad at me I want to register a complaint about some of your members.

They are the lawyers who go on television to pontificate about court cases they have no connection to and have never sat in on.

As a veteran courthouse reporter I know how the game is played. The TV host needs someone to interview about a high-profile legal case and who better than a lawyer, right? No problem so far. We can all certainly benefit from a good and thoughtful lawyer’s legal perspective.

My complaint is about those attorneys who appear on television not to enlighten but to perform and to promote themselves. Often they are in a New York studio offering up very specific pronouncements about what’s happening in, say, the Las Vegas courtroom where OJ Simpson was on trial. They’re not even there! They shouldn’t be telling me, as I heard one say the other day, about how the Simpson jury members are digesting the evidence!

I covered the headline grabbing criminal case of entertainer Michael Jackson in 2005. All the major television outlets had cameras there including many from foreign countries. It was a lawyer magnet. During breaks reporters would stretch their legs in a small courtyard and the “Helicopter Lawyers” would descend. They’d hover about under the guise of helping us really understand what was going on yet some hadn’t bothered to step inside the courtroom before pontificating! A few would literally fly in from other cities and states and immediately hit media row to comment. Still others, we came to find out, were friends of the court gagged attorneys inside, there to act as mouthpieces to hammer home a particular viewpoint.

It happened at the Scott Peterson murder trial in northern California and at the Robert Blake murder trial in southern California. It happened at the Martha Stewart perjury and conspiracy trial in Manhattan. It happens during any trial where television cameras turn up. Lawyers get invited – or just show up – to get their mug on TV. And almost invariably they can’t resist the typical reporter question, “Who’s winning so far?” and the bogus score-carding begins.

Should reporters be more careful in choosing who they actually put on the air? You bet they should. But back to my main complaint – lawyers – who flock to cameras like moths to lights.

I guess it’s the recklessness of their comments that bugs me most. During on-going trials I’ve heard experienced attorneys call a prosecutor’s case “full of laughable evidence,” the witnesses labeled as “lying weirdoes.” Mere suspects in a case are labeled “obviously guilty as sin” or even worse, a “candidate for the electric chair if I ever saw one.”

Aren’t there rules against this? The ABA has a set of Model Rules for members. It’s not binding but 47 states have adopted them in whole or part. Among other things the rules bar “…conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice” and “…conduct involving dishonesty…or misrepresentation.” Recklessly saying things on TV that could affect the outcome of a trial would seem to fly in the face of those rules. What good are rules if members ignore them?

In this 24/7 news atmosphere sitting jurors could easily have a spouse blurt out one of these irresponsible comments or inadvertently see it on the internet or television. It’s known that many jurors ignore the Judge’s admonition not to discuss, watch TV or read anything about the case on which they are sitting. It is human nature to sneak a peak at something that’s been banned.

Set aside the jurors for a moment. The general public is listening too. When they hear one lawyer bashing another’s case it can’t possibly help the legal profession as a whole. While there are exemplary attorneys explaining legal issues in the media it is the ones who rant and rave we remember most.

Doug O’Brien is a rare bird, both a lawyer and national broadcast journalist. He worries that the public may reach opinions based on bad punditry.

“Because no media outlet has the time or space for complete explanations, people who actually listen to what a lawyer pundit says can go away with the wrong impression of the law … Then, surprise! (If) the outcome is different than expected … they think a lawyer or judge is pulling a fast one. That hurts the legal profession.”

I wonder why the ABA hasn’t done something to reign in these careless self-promoters.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Lyn October 11, 2008 at 3:41 pm

Once again, another wonderful and interesting column Diane. You are sooooooooo right. There are far too many lawyers who appear on tv just to promote themselves rather than be honest to the viewer and/or the client. My first thought is Debra Opri!!! Now, as far as I can remember, she was very often turning up on Nancy’s show virtually every week. However, in 2005 her and Opri had a bit of a “disagreement” lets say and Opri has never appeared on Nancy’s show since…nor have I seen her on tv much since the Larry Birkhead trial. I am sure you will remember Opri presenting Birkhead with a $600,000+ bill! On this bill were charges for Opri and her husband dining out (not cheap and cheerful noshes either) – charges for Opri getting her husband;s suits dry-cleaned…just two of the many items on that list. $600,000!!!!! I have no idea how this woman had the audacity to do what she did..anyway, thank God we don;t see her on tev anymore. Another one is…..Mike Geragos…oh yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeees! Mr. Sunglasses and mobile (permanently stuck to his ear)…now I have to say, I do think Nancy Grace was hysterical when she did her “skit” of him….in fact, one of the funniest moments ever on her show. These are just 2 of the many many lawyers that have used the media to their own advantage….Oh..and Geragos of course represented Scott Peterson…and he failed there didn;t he??? Thank God for that. Now, having said all that…..I do believe Ms. Grace herself does fly the “you are guilty” routine to most of the cases she covers on her show, however she is not a practising lawyer any more. You are right, how do they get away with it? Shit happens in most professions but in this one it is rife! Sorry I got a bit carried away there for a second but I was just thinking of examples of this. It makes me sick actually, but then…most of them do anyway.

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Diane October 11, 2008 at 7:17 pm

Lyn – You know I think there are countless lawyers on the air today who really do strive to inform the public about the law and what is happening. You mentioned two who are on the other side of that. However, they are but two of the ones who give the legal profession a bad name and I marvel at how the rest of them keep quiet.
I know in my profession of journalism if someone acts outside the ethics of the biz they are completely ostracized. Still I’m wondering why the “mainstream” lawyers don’t rise up and act against the flamboyant ones? Hmmm.

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Lyn October 11, 2008 at 8:24 pm

Absolutely….they are just two of the many…two of the “high profile” lawyers who in my opinion are rather um…what;s the word…”remiss” of where and what they should be doing. Yes, I know there must be hundreds more. These are the two that came to mind first. BTW, talking of lawyers….another slime ball is Jose Baez!! Now….if Casey Anthony has been spending about 6 hours/day at his office….I wonder how much her bill is going to be and who is going to pay it? I don’t mean to wonder off the path here but Casey Anthony has no money cos she steals and spends it…and her parents are probably going to have to pay…..Koby…I cannot believe he has taken on part of the forensic “defence” for this case. Just wondering.

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jeff liddell October 11, 2008 at 5:48 pm

Unbiased news reporting is a necessity in an informational world. The problem with televised trials is that the subject matter creates such emotion that those covering the trials, defense attorneys and/or other professionals doing nothing more than advertising for their particular practices. While I do watch trial coverage on Tru TV, I find the on air personalities that host and their guests usually have or quickly develop preconceived ideas about the outcome and even go so far as to explain how the jury should be interpreting any testimony or evidence they hear. I believe that this type of trial coverage is and can be very detrimental to the fair trial theory. Media coverage of live events is a very powerful and important tool and should never be taken lightly by those producing and presenting them to the public. Your mention of the Scott Peterson trial may be the ultimate example,
in as much as most of us believe he did murder Laci and Connor, and that he is exactly where he should be, the extensive biased pre trial media coverage coupled with the same biased trial coverage may have prevented him from getting a fair trial anywhere in the country. That just cannot be allowed to happen.

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Diane October 11, 2008 at 7:19 pm

Oh, Jeff – I don’t excuse the TV hosts or reporters one bit. I hope I made that clear in the column.
Look. We’ve got a more than workable justice system and all of us – let me repeat that – ALL OF US – should let it do the job it was set up to do. Is it perfect? No because its run by human beings. But bottom line: it doesn’t help to have irresponsible people (lawyers especially) commenting on what they THINK the outcome should be. Report the facts, speak only to them and the law – and the rest will follow. ~ DD

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jeff liddell October 12, 2008 at 12:02 am

Diane, you are among the best at reporting these type of events, that is why most of us would like to see you on air much more than you are. Perhaps you can talk Tru TV into giving you the slot right after Banfield and Ford to wrap up the days trial coverage in an insightful unprejudiced approach and simply allow the viewers to make up their own minds about the facts.

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Edward Lozzi October 11, 2008 at 6:07 pm

Diane, As you know we are a public relations firm in the new media capital of the world- Los Angeles. We now represent 26 award winning law firms who deal in high profle cases attracted to media. Many of our lawyer clients appear on national and local television as pundits, or to speak on behalf of their clients directly. Much of what you say is correct. We have had to “suggest” to some of our clients over the years to tone down the pontifications. The great Melvin Belli comes to mind during his stints on CNN and E during the O.J. Trial. It is the second service by our lawyer clients mentioned that I wish to address. Lawyers who are speaking on behalf of their own clients to the media/public is different. It is essential in many cases-especially if there are problems with the Court (bad Judge, biased reporters, bad venue)-they are not pontificating and making up stuff here. I just didn’t want your readers to be confused with the two services.

Your blog is essential reading for us here in the office and for most of the hundreds of competing PR firms here in Los Angeles. Edward Lozzi http://www.lozzipr.com

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Diane October 11, 2008 at 7:21 pm

Edward Lozzi you flatter me! Thanks for your comments…. I know many of your clients and, frankly, they are not the ones this column was directed to.
Leave it to you to understand the difference between a side-player lawyer simply coming in to comment and an attorney who is actually attached to the case. Two very different animals, two very different approaches. ~ DD

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Lyn October 11, 2008 at 8:32 pm

WOW…that’s a brill comment!

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Kenn October 12, 2008 at 7:33 am

You are certainly insightful (and perhaps inciteful) in your analysis of the “helicopter lawyers” and the ABA’s need to take a look at the situation. I have the feeling you are not likley to ever be a guest on
Nancy Grace’s show discussing how those money & glory-seeking TV guest expert barristers often do more harm than good!

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Diane October 13, 2008 at 2:37 pm

Well, Kenn –
I do sit in for Nancy once in a while when she wants a day off – I can’t see her EVER discussing this particular topic! ~ Phew ! ~ DD

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Lyn October 13, 2008 at 3:34 pm

Too right…my God….phew is the word!!

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Alan Bentley October 15, 2008 at 2:09 pm

I see what you’re saying Diane but if you’re right, then no lawyers should be commenting on cases outside of the lawyers involved in the case. While fewer blathering lawyers could be good for all of us, I don’t think that the constitution would like to see that.

If you do manage to get all lawyers gagged, I would like to be the first on your show to comment at OJ’s next murder trial. I could really use the exposure:)

AB

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Diane November 1, 2008 at 5:19 pm

From Reader Robert A. via Facebook:
“Like your site…hope I’m never a “Helicopter Lawyer”. I kind of feel that the regulars who do that work are going on more as entertainers than lawyers, though they’re only there bc they are attorneys. I’ve always viewed those 4 lawyer ona screen shows, with attorneys yelling at each other as demeaning to those lawyers , as well as to the profession. I never really thought any sharp viewer was forming an opinion based on what the participants said anyway. As for the self promotion…well it seems that often there is a price those pay for their conduct.”

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