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September|October 2004
Making The Partner By Justin Dillon
Above It All By Amy Sullivan
Peter Ambrose, Bladder Cop By Ben Goldstein
The Beagle Brigade By Will Potter
The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon
Cases & Controversies

Making The Partner

It's The Apprentice, but with lawyers.

By Justin Dillon

HERMAN MELVILLE WROTE THAT "It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation." Herman Melville would never have made it in television. Last spring, NBC's The Apprentice made a TV star of Donald Trump, and the show's huge ratings convinced the network to turn the special into a regular feature and place a non-sitcom in its 8-10 p.m. Thursday lineup for the first time in 20 years. Now Fox, which is to reality TV what Larry Flynt is to romance, has come up with its own version of The Apprentice—and, in typical Fox fashion, it has put its own peculiar spin on the concept.

This time, it's lawyers.

The new show, which is scheduled to premiere during November sweeps, will pit between 15 and 25 lawyers against each other in mock trials. According to Fox, two teams—one consisting of "'book smart' Ivy League graduates" and another of "'street smart' lawyers from less prestigious schools"—will compete before a jury of laypeople chosen by the contestants. Whoever loses will then go on trial before a celebrity "judge," who will decide which contestants stay and which ones go. Because this is Fox, it seems safe to assume that if the celebrity judge is not Johnnie Cochran, it is because he said no.

On The Apprentice, the reward was a top position in a Trump company. The reward on The Partner, according to casting director Jean Arthur, will be "a lucrative position in a prestigious law firm." Given the show's title, an obvious question is whether the contestants will be competing for an actual partnership, but Arthur would not provide details on what the job would be. Common sense suggests that the position will be something short of a partnership, but it is hard to blame the producers for taking titular liberties. It's unlikely that the tryouts would have attracted quite as many applicants had the show been entitled "The Document Review Associate."

Casting calls were held over the summer in cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles; would-be contestants could also print an application off the Internet and submit it along with a short videotape explaining, among other things, why they want to be on the show. The application included questions that would be readily familiar to anyone who's interviewed at a law firm: "In law school, how prepared were you on a daily basis?" And, "Which Gilligan's Island character would you be if stuck on the island?"

For four consecutive Sunday afternoons, the Washington, D.C., auditions were held at Third Edition, a wood-paneled Georgetown bar typically populated by twenty-somethings who are just one Appletini away from meeting the great love of their night. After filling out the application in the main dining area, would-be contestants were taken upstairs one at a time and videotaped while answering questions from Arthur and one of her associates. (Alas, journalists and practicing lawyers pretending to be journalists were not allowed to watch these interviews.)

More than 100 people showed up for the tryouts over the course of the month. Several people mentioned "exposure" as their primary reason for being there, but, oblivious of the irony, a number of them asked to be identified only by their first names.

Maureen, a striking 36-year-old 2000 Georgetown Law graduate who used to manage a frozen-yogurt store and who wore a tight green dress to her audition, had somewhat undefined goals. Currently working at a firm that does arts and entertainment law, she said she'd like to do the same kind of work she does now—just while working less and making more money. She was upfront about how she'd be perceived on the show: as "a smart bimbo.... I'm smart, I dress slutty sometimes, and I have zillions of shoes. I converted my stepson's old bedroom into a closet room. There has to be a special place in hell for that."

Some applicants worried about their ability to fit within established reality-TV molds. Traci, a 31-year-old 2001 University of Tennessee College of Law graduate, thought the show could help her become a legal correspondent on TV. But as a black woman in a post-Omarosa world, she seemed concerned about how she might come across on the show. Alluding to the widely reviled villain of The Apprentice, she said, "I'm not really the sister-girl type, so there won't be any snapping the fingers and rolling the head from me." Other applicants were hoping to put reality-TV stereotypes to their advantage. Jeremy, 28 and a 2002 Harvard Law School graduate, was angling for what seems to have become a specific reality-show role: "It seems like they always have one Harvard person, so I'll try out for that spot."

Other applicants were drawn to Fox's school-warfare approach. David, 38, graduated from George Washington Law School in 1999 and was laid off from a large law firm in the fall of 2003. At the time of the audition, he was living off his 401(k), which was his only means of support for his wife and young child. Above all, he wanted a job. But he also seemed to want revenge. "I have a chip on my shoulder with respect to the people who laid me off and the top-five law school grads who in many ways think that a job is their right, not a privilege," he said. "I practiced with these guys, and I'm better than most of them."

One aspirant's story was ready-made for TV. Michael, 27, a 2001 graduate of Howard University School of Law, was raised in the child-welfare system—a mix of group, foster, and adoptive homes. He put himself through college and law school while serving in the Army Reserves and now lives in Columbus, Ohio. During a national mock trial competition in which he took second place, a coach for another law school's team, who was the managing partner at a Columbus law firm, invited him to join the firm after graduation. He did and stayed for a year, after which he left to start his own practice. Michael, who said he has never lost a case in front of a jury, was hoping for good publicity. "My goal in this is not to work for anyone," he said. "My goal in this is to show people that I'm the best lawyer in the country."

Kevin, 29, a 2003 Syracuse Law School graduate, had a more modest goal if picked for the show—to survive its editing process: "While law school did take away part of my dignity," he said, "I'd like to hang on to what's left."

This idealism might not survive the reality of reality TV. The production company responsible for The Partner—the sublimely named Rocket Science Laboratories—also gave us Married by America and Joe Millionaire and its sequel. Those predecessors suggest that The Partner may end with a twist. In Joe Millionaire, for example, single women competed for the heart of a "millionaire" who turned out to be a construction worker making $19,000 a year. What The Partner's twist might be, if there is one, is difficult to guess, but it is unlikely to enhance the social or professional status of any contestant still standing by the time it arrives. So why do it? Is the chance to be on The Partner simply a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that's too good to pass up? Matt, 26, a 2003 Duke School of Law graduate, put it this way: "When else in your life are you going to have the chance to be on a reality show? Probably a lot. I don't know."

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