Reel-Life Law

October 28, 2011

What does The West Wing teach us about the legal life?

Photo: Queen/Matrix







The West Wing is widely credited with reinventing politics for a generation on both sides of the Atlantic.

Don’t like New Labour? Blame The West Wing. Sickened by Obama’s touchy-feely speechifying? Blame The West Wing. Hate seeing David Cameron with an open collar? Blame The West Wing. Or possibly all the mustard he supposedly ate at college, which made his poor throat too swollen for a necktie.

Anyway, part of The West Wing‘s allure is its positioning of political administration as a positive moral force. In doing so, it makes comparisons with other institutions, not least the US legal profession, which it suggests doesn’t know the difference between a moral stand and a pastrami bagel.

Played by Rob Lowe, Sam Seaborn is a lawyer at New York’s ‘second largest firm’, Gage Whitney. Sam is good. Very good. He’s about to make partnership and clears $400K a year. But when we see him at work he’s about as engaged as his old mate Charlie Sheen at a temperance gathering.

Sam’s in a client meeting, presenting a deal designed to protect an oil company buying dodgy tankers from potential litigation. Sam yawnily leaves the meeting halfway through to see his old friend, Josh Lynam. The two go for a hot dog, at 9.30 in the morning – more proof, were it needed, that working in a law firm is against some natural grain. Sam tells Josh that’s he’s hard at work protecting oil companies. Josh, joshily, can’t believe that no-one ever wrote a folk song about that kind of thing.

Later, when Sam breaks rank and with etiquette to suggest the oil company should buy different, better tankers and thus decrease the chances of litigation in the first place, the client looks at Sam like he’s just starting singing ‘The Red Flag’ in a Hugo Chavez accent.

Firm supremo Mr Gage suggests Sam will get fired if he persists with this noble, and therefore unacceptable, suggestion. Mr Gage, we suspect, is the kind of man who would happily have his staff sell crystal meth and ArmaLites at school-gates if it helped fill up their time-sheets.

Gage Whitney therefore goes from being merely amoral to immoral. Sam resigns on the spot, storming off to work as a speechwriter on the Bartlet campaign, saving lives and souls rather than pesky client dollars.

And what happens to Gage Whitney? They survive, curiously turning up not just in West Wing helmer Aaron Sorkin’s next drama, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but also in 24.  Which just goes to show that in fiction as in life, immorality is no barrier to longevity. AB


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