'How To Get Away With Murder' Review: Law School, Defense, Hollywood

By William Peacock, Esq. on September 26, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If you haven't heard, Shonda Rhimes, the artist behind "Grey's Anatomy," "Private Practice," and "Scandal," just came out with a law school/legal defense drama: "How To Get Away With Murder." It was the most intrigiuing of our Fall TV/Legal Drama Preview.

It's 1L year. Professor Kingsfield Keating is teaching Criminal Law, or as she likes to call it, "How To Get Away With Murder"! And instead of sticking to the boring Socratic Method, she's going for experiential learning. The best of her 879 (estimated) students will get to work for her criminal defense firm. And, of course, there's a murder case for the first episode.

How does the show stack up in terms of 1L year, real-life law, and Hollywood screenwriting tricks? (Spoilers to follow. Also, some of this will only make sense if you watch the show.)

Law School LOL

This is the experiential learning overhaul legal ed. critics have been calling for! Keating Socratizes the kids for about 15 seconds, including a tense showdown with baby-faced Wes, who admits that he is a wait-list admittee and hasn't yet done the reading! (Gasps and laughter!) After that? It's a field trip to a murder defense client's house! Don't expect any "Paper Chase"-style accuracy here -- it's Shondaland, after all.

Other criticisms:

  • Professors aren't going to ask for an actus reus or mens rea on the first day -- we hope.
  • If Wait-List Wes ("WLW") was a real-life student, his inferiority complex would drive him to the top of the class.
  • Many of the 1L archetypes are here, including a 1L measuring up Alan Dershowitz. (Seriously? Seriously.) Lots of gunners too.
  • Professors don't (in real life), but should, cut down gunners. Laurel Castillo, one of the main characters, bails out WLW, after which Prof. Keating says: "Never take a learning opportunity away from another student, no matter how smart you need everyone to think you are."
  • 1Ls don't live in crack houses. That's why we have student loans. WLW has claw marks on his wall, bite marks on the headboard, a stained mattress, and a neighbor with loud music. This is a no-tell motel, not a proper learning and living environment.
  • Experiential learning doesn't work in 1L year. You teach 'em to "think like a lawyer" by cramming black-letter law into their skulls. Save the faux trials for 2L/3L. I'm speaking from experience.
  • These kids, who are skipping Torts to go to the trial, are going to fail their finals and end up with six-figure debt, an angry Torts professor, and one cool story. Kind of like those of us who graduated in 2011.

Criminal Defense

Full disclosure: Much to my chagrin, I've never defended a guilty murderer. But still, some of this stuff is just hilarious.

Prof. Keating's Paint-By-Numbers Approach to Criminal Defense:

  • Step 1: Discredit witness.
  • Step 2: Introduce an alternate suspect.
  • Step 3: Bury the evidence (by presenting too much information to the jury ... overwhelmed = doubt).

First of all: the field trip. I know privilege typically extends to support staff, but 325 1Ls? That's a lot of third-party disclosure if it doesn't. Risky, risky, risky. And what client is going to sign off on this little teaching opportunity?

Unethical conduct:

  • Connor Walsh, who hooked up with an IT guy to get access to emails. (Side rant: IT guy is a shy, submissive -- yes, in that way too -- Asian guy. C'mon Shonda -- really with the stereotypes? Also, this may be the first time I've seen two men having sex on network television.)
  • Admissibility magic: where Prof. Keating pretends like she didn't know that the emails weren't in the discovery file. (Defense has to disclose exculpatory evidence now? Here's this lady is smarter than I am.) Judge, who doesn't give a damn about surprise evidence, settles unasked authenticity question by having witness admit that he wrote them.
  • Prof. Keating, using illegally obtained evidence.
  • Prof. Keating gets freaky with a detective in the case. WLW walks in on her, setting his career up for life. ("Hey Prof, remember when the guy who looks like the Old Spice guy [sans roids] was on his knees? That was fun!")
  • Michaela Pratt, the super hot gunner, who pretends to be a claims adjuster to get medical information on a witness.
  • Prof. Keating didn't check out the witness' eyesight ahead of time? Watch "My Cousin Vinny"! My Evidence professor totally made us watch that. Hence, my expertise in criminal defense and evidence law, as shown in this blog post.
  • Prof. Keating's 1Ls, who work for her, may have murdered her husband -- not the Old Spice guy, by the way -- and burned the body. Murder? Destroying evidence? #ethicsfail.

Hollywood Magic

From the beginning, you are set up to like Wait-List Wes. WLW is baby-faced, shy but friendly, and definitely not a gunner. He might be the "sincere scholar" of the class. He's also the one person who doesn't compromise his ethics or gun away in class -- except the whole murder/burn the body thing in the flash-forward sequences. And even then, he's being all democratic about it -- "We'll only burn this gas-soaked body if everyone here agrees!"

Also, in Hollywood, there's a classic screenwriting trick to making you like a character: the "Save the Cat" moment. The character does something noble, like saving a cat from an oncoming car, which -- boom -- makes you like him. Here, WLW checked in on his grumpy, goth, domestic violence victim neighbor (Rebecca) after the jock archetype character breaks things.

Finally, because this is a Shondaland production, there's going to be lots of sex. Prof. is already sleeping with a detective and her husband (presumably). Husband may be sleeping with his psych. student and one of Keating's associate attorneys, who gave Keating a nasty look for kissing her own husband. Students are all eyeballing each other. Connor already had the fling with the IT guy. And Rebecca (goth-neighbor-victim) is going to sleep with WLW -- calling it now.

What's your verdict on the pilot episode of "How To Get Away With Murder"? Let us know via Twitter (@FindLawLP) or Facebook (FindLaw for Legal Professionals).

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