New Amazon Show Asks If Big Law Is Too Big?

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Later this month, actor Billy Bob Thornton will star as a disgraced lawyer in Los Angeles in a new series called “Goliath.”

Thornton’s character works on the plaintiff’s side, having been expelled from one of the largest corporate law firms in the world, and the story is a fictional meditation on the differences between working as a sole practitioner versus working for a global powerhouse firm.

“Law has become a corporate power unto itself … it’s become this monolithic force,” said Jonathan Shapiro, a former federal prosecutor and former of counsel at Kirkland & Ellis, who co-wrote and created the series with David Kelley.

Jonathan Shapiro speaking about "Goliath" at the 2016 Amazon TCA Summer Press Tour in Beverly Hills, California, on August 7, 2016.  Photo by Valerie Macon (AFP/Getty Images)
Jonathan Shapiro speaking about “Goliath” at the 2016 Amazon TCA Summer Press Tour in Beverly Hills, California, on August 7, 2016. Photo by Valerie Macon (AFP/Getty Images)

The eight-episode show is available on Amazon on Oct. 14.

Shapiro said he wanted to make a show about the high cost of civil justice, and how the legal profession has changed in recent years with the emergence of global corporate law firms. He spoke to Big Law Business from Los Angeles. What follows is a transcript, edited for clarity and brevity.

Big Law Business: The description of this show is really simple: “A disgraced lawyer, now an ambulance chaser, gets a case that could bring him redemption or at least revenge on the firm which expelled him.”

Is this about the cultural difference between the plaintiff’s bar and defense bar?

Shapiro: That’s a good way to put it. It’s David v. Goliath in the 21st century and raises the question whether David can ever expect to win?

In 2013, I was of counsel at Kirkland & Ellis, and I hadn’t been in practice in years and the law had changed so much. If you told me in 1990 when I graduated Berkeley Law, that there would be over 20 law firms with over $1 billion in revenue and law offices over the world, I would have not believed you. Because we thought we were entering a profession, not a business.

Law has become a corporate power unto itself … it’s become this monolithic force against the individual plaintiff. The number of cases that reach jury trial has dropped precipitously.When I graduated, we all wanted to be Atticus Finch. Now, they all want to be corporate attorneys putting deals together.

[Ed. Note: Shapiro stressed that Kirkland & Ellis is not the law firm portrayed in the show.]

Admittedly, I’m 53, but I still believe [Alexis] de Tocqueville’s notion that two of the most important institutions in our democracy, are the lawyer and the jury.

The Davids of the world are facing opponents that … [have] technology, a deep bench of talent, global reach over evidence… How the hell is the little guy, the one attorney shop going to beat those guys? How are they ever going to have a chance and what does it mean for our democracy that he doesn’t even have a shot at getting in front of the jury anymore?

Big Law Business: What are some of the ethical issues that arise at a big firm?

Shapiro: The reason why we were taught to think of ourselves as a profession is because we weren’t supposed to have skin in the game or anything that would cause us to make decisions based on economic incentives. And the one who always did was the plaintiff’s lawyer. We called him the ambulance chaser, the shyster. There have always been deep ethical conflicts — maintaining client privilege when you know the client did something wrong; or the conflict of representing tobacco or the gun manufacturer. Now we have an additional conflict: The law firm is now so tied to the success of the corporation that the law firm has to cut its own throat [to turn a client in for wrongdoing], that is the danger of too big.

Big Law Business: The show is about a trial. Is it based on a real case?

Shapiro: It’s actually based on several cases that [co-writer David Kelley and I] wanted to do in “The Practice” in 2001 [which was another show they worked on together]. This was just a few days after 9/11, anticipating what would happen once we started fighting the war on terror and we kind of put this on the back burner. Then, we never got back to it because you couldn’t do it in one episode.

It’s about whistle blower law [and the defense industry]. Maybe you have to grow up here [in L.A.] to know, the defense industry is in our blood. During the Superbowl this year, I saw an ad that Boeing did for the stealth bomber and I thought why is Boeing doing this? No one’s buying a bomber. And so the question arose about what it means to be in the industry of making weapons. Is it a necessary evil or a pure good? I suspect it falls somewhere in between, and the place that plays out is not in the battlefield, but in the courtroom.

We rarely get to have a public discussion about it. Fundamental to the show is the idea that … a jury trial is like a hurricane. It affects everybody it touches in unexpected ways. We never have a chance in network television to show how it affects the secondary characters. Most people’s lives will not be affected by a criminal case. Most of us will in some ways be affected by a civil case.

Big Law Business: But a civil case is paperwork and procedure. Where did you find the drama?

Shapiro: By choosing the defense industry, which impacts our country in so many ways. And in our country, all the great social movements have involved court cases in the civil context. Arguably more than elections, I think. Most people may not realize it, but their lives will be affected by a civil case — how they can live, who they can love, what rights they have, prayer in the school – those are all cases that can be decided in court. They’re not criminal cases.

Big Law Business: Who are today’s icons of the legal profession for you?

Shapiro: Boies and Olson. Of course, maybe it’s a West Coast bias. Olson is from out here and to see his evolution makes you realize people can evolve.

And also, not just because I did a film with her, Sandra Day O’Connor. She’ll always be in our hearts and minds. I think she’s a wonderful representative of the degree to which women have become involved in the profession.

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