A Quick Primer on What 'How to Get Away with Murder' Gets Wrong About Law School
I love everything about Shones Rhimes’ latest bananapants drama How to Get Away with Murder — the casting, the diversity, and the progressiveness — except for one thing: The show itself. It’s a show that I want to love because it takes many of my favorite things — murder, adultery, legal mysteries, The Secret History — and blends them all up with an attractive, often competent cast.
But dear God, the storylines are terrible, and the show’s understanding of law school is flabbergasting. Nobody could bother watching five minutes of the Paper Chase to at least get a slight idea of what law school looks like?
I couldn’t possibly explain everything that How to Get Away with Murder gets wrong about law school because I’d be writing until next Thursday’s episode. But here’s a few basics:
Nothing that Annalise Keating teaches in her first year criminal law class — except for actus reus and mens reas — are taught in first year criminal law classes. Primarily, a first year crim law class focuses on the four elements of a crime, which do include the act and the intent. You do not, however, learn about Fourth Amendment search and seizure protections or Miranda. You learn about the different degrees of homicide. You learn about the insanity defense. You learn about state statutes. You do not learn how to get away with a murder. Witnesses are never mentioned. Where to bury a body is not once discussed. There is never, ever a discussion about suspects. You are reading and dissecting decades or centuries’ old legal opinions. You are not trying a case.
It’s a very technical and boring class. In fact, criminal law, along with torts (which is basically the same thing as criminal law, only for civil court) are the dullest classes in the entire first year of law school.
What Keating does with her students — uses them to help her consult on cases — is not something that happens in law school. A third year law student maybe helps a professor do some research on a case or write a memo, but that’s about it. Professors are also academics, so for the most part, they do appellate work, not trial work. Ain’t no professor running back and forth between court and her classes all day because trials are about “facts” and appeals are about the “law.” Your Barry Zuckercorns try to persuade juries to believe their narratives, while scholars — like Keating — try to have laws overturned or proven unconstitutional.
Law school doesn’t really train you to be a lawyer. It trains you to think like a lawyer, but actually being a lawyer involves a lot of different skills from what we learn in law school. Most of these skills are learned on the job, as first year associates or in legal aid or government offices. The show would be a little more realistic if they took it out of a classroom and put into a law firm dealing with first year attorneys, but that show has already been attempted (several times) and it always seems to fail.
There are clinics in law school where there is some training. They do not, however, typically deal with murder investigations (although, sometimes they do involve appellate work on death penalty cases). And they certainly do not deal with a murder a week. I was in a clinic for a year, I believe, and I did, like, a divorce and a couple of Social Security cases. A murder trial takes months. Realistically, by the time Keating’s class got through their first murder case, the semester would be over.
People in law school are not universally attractive as depicted in How To Get Away with Murder. This goes without saying, I’m sure, but — and I think this is the technical term, here — “uggos” are the predominant law school type. Super attractive law students exist, but they usually don’t date other lawyers (See: Uggos). However, it is worth mentioned that students do spend a lot of time fucking. It’s good stress relief.
Nobody has time for all that drama. First year law school involves mostly waking up, studying, going to class, studying, picking up smoking or a minor drug habit to remind you that you are still alive, studying, and bitching to your friends about how terrified you are about being called upon or how insane your professor is or how much studying you are doing. There’s no time to investigate murder cases or go to a fucking bonfire. What the hell would a law student be doing at a bonfire? That right there immediately throws suspicion on everyone involved in the show’s murder.
Your relationship will end. This hasn’t really been touched upon on the show, but I think it’s worth mentioning in this context: 80 percent of law students come to law school in a relationship. With the exception of older, nontraditional students who are already in long-term marriages, 90 percent of those people will not be in that same relationship by the end of law school. Why? Because when you go to law school, it’s all you ever talk about, and the non-law student in the relationship doesn’t want to hear one more goddamn word about it. You’re so busy and self-involved that she stopped listening to you halfway through your conversation and starting banging another guy right in front of you and you didn’t even notice.
Basically, what I’m saying is, nothing about How to Get Away with Murder rings true. In fact, half the shit the characters say about the law doesn’t make any sense — they’re just terms and phrases they pulled out of other legal shows and mashed them together and hoped no one would notice. That might work on a medical drama where the names of the medications aren’t that important to the storylines, but in a legal show, it matters. Hire a research department. Attend a class or two. Watch a few episodes of Law & Order (it’s not completely accurate, but as legal shows go, the lawyers do at least cite real cases).