Better Call Saul? Almost, But Not Quite
Looking for a realistic portrayal of the practice of law in a small firm? Then you had better call Saul, as in Saul Goodman, the fictional creation of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, creators of the new AMC series "Better Call Saul."
A busy law practice keeps me from watching much television, but I did watch Gilligan's earlier creation, "Breaking Bad," the saga of Walter White's transformation from high school chemistry teacher to methamphetamine king. Saul Goodman, you may recall, was Walt's lawyer.
Saul made me uneasy. He was a fast-talking, morally bankrupt, bottom-feeder made possible by the war on drugs. But his tap-dancing approach to the practice of law was mesmerizing. Hence, the new series, a prequel, if you will, explains how Saul became Saul, long before he ever met Walt.
What does this charlatan have to teach about the practice of law? He doesn't really teach; he illustrates a reality that bar regulators can only imagine. Saul is trapped, as are almost all small firm and solo practitioners, caught between the impossible demands of clients and the need to make a living.
As the series begins, Saul is actually Jimmy McGill—he later changes his name to Saul Goodman ('t's all good, man), a correspondence school lawyer who passed the bar on his third try, and lives in the shadow of a brilliant older brother, a reclusive mentally ill lawyer. No reputable firm will have Saul, so he strikes out on his own, his office little more than a transformed storage closet tucked away in the back of a nail salon.
He earns nominal fees as assigned counsel, bitterly complaining to the court clerk that he's not paid enough to make ends meet and perpetually at war with the courthouse parking attendant.
Each night, he returns to his office, sits at his desk, and does what all street lawyers do—beholds his telephone as something akin to a religious icon: Will it hold a message from a potential client with an actual fee? His magician-like hand gestures before he picks up the receiver are the best fictional portrayal of the irrational hope lawyers manufacture out of the day-to-day despair of fee-hustling.
But as good as the writers of "Better Call Saul" are, even they flinch. Saul is angling for a fee from a municipal employee accused of embezzling millions. The defendant chooses a big firm as counsel; Saul's girlfriend, a lawyer in that very firm, negotiates a plea requiring return of all the stolen funds. The client, insisting there is no money to return, fires the mega-firm, with the client's wife insisting they will go to trial.
The couple returns to Saul, and demands a trial. Saul sends them back to his girlfriend after arranging, by felonious means, to have stolen from his potential clients the embezzled money they have hidden away. It was an odd juncture: Saul engineered a theft to return what could have been a whopping trial fee. He should have dove at the fee to try the case. That's what a trial lawyer on the cusp of bankruptcy would do.
What makes Saul realistic? Desperation. That's what the streets are all about. That's what lawyers without institutional clients endure on a daily basis.
"Better Call Saul" ought to be must viewing in law schools and, perhaps more importantly, the offices of bar regulators.
When I read arid accounts about the importance of communicating with clients, responding to each email, each call, forever addressing the infinite needs born of the terror of folks pressed hard against the horror their lives have become, I shudder. Who is supposed to pay for all the service regulators require? Certainly not the clients who can barely muster the nominal flat fee a market saturated with lawyers yields.
Saul Goodman cuts corners, but he expresses, almost, a larger truth about lawyering we refuse to acknowledge: Making a living as a street-level lawyer is a lot like living in Hobbes' state or nature. It's pure chaos out there. Saul's creators almost—I said almost—get it.