‘The Good Wife’ Finale

Lessons for Lawyers from 'The Good Wife'

The Good Wife Finale
Jamie McCarthy/Staff/Getty Images Entertainment.

Through seven seasons of “The Good Wife,” viewers who happen to be lawyers — especially urban lawyers in the world of BigLaw — could get a bit of a dose of reality in the form of an engaging hour-long legal drama featuring Julianna Margulies (once upon a time Nurse Carol Hathaway opposite George Clooney’s Dr. Doug Ross on “ER”) in the title role. She played Alicia Florrick, the good wife who stood by her politician spouse, Peter (Chris Noth, formerly of “Sex and the City”).

Alicia stood by Peter as he got to go to prison, and then she couldn’t stand by any longer: she had to support the family while the breadwinner was away. She’d been a stay-at-home mom for quite a while. Headhunters weren’t exactly wooing her. Alicia finally got lucky and landed a job as an associate — a position for which she had to try out — at a Chicago firm. Her mother-in-law — a trying woman on a good day — would be watching the kids. The series aired from 2009 until 2016. A lot happened, both for Alicia professionally, to the lawyers with whom she associated and then partnered with, to the legal business, and to the world at large.

Viewers who happened to be law students could learn that you really can still study for the bar exam, or at least test yourself, by watching network television, especially if you happen to be focusing on the ethics portion. (How many rules are brushed up against in each episode?

What is the felony-murder rule again? What exactly is cruel and unusual punishment?)

Georgetown University Law Center alumni could not only enjoy the boost for their school —  as both Alicia Florrick and main character Will Gardner (played by Josh Charles), Alicia's hiring partner, were graduates —  but also marvel that one of the recurring characters appearing on the show happened to be named Charles Abernathy (played by Denis O'Hare), also the name of an especially intimidating (and brilliant and inspiring) first-year constitutional law professor at the law school.

(Full disclosure: I graduated from Georgetown Law and Professor Abernathy was my Con Law professor.)

The rest of the world was treated to some behind-closed-doors reveals about how lawyers compete, bicker, and litigate to win. Here are some lessons lawyers and others might learn from “The Good Wife” series:

  • Lawyers have an obligation to represent their clients' positions zealously. The preamble to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct so notes, and Alicia zealously reminds her partner Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) about the required zealousness during the show's May 2016 finale. In the final showdown in court, where Alicia, Diane, and Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) are representing Alicia’s husband, Peter, in yet another corruption case, zeal becomes an issue. In the somewhat incestuous world of TV court dramas, Diane’s spouse, who had previously testified, would now need to be impeached. Diane hedged, Alicia reminded her flatly about that obligation to represent a client zealously, and Lucca then did the dirty work, which wasn’t so dirty from the perspective of the client. It was all about the spouse’s possible conflict of interest. In the real world, the exact level of zeal required is a bit ambiguous.
  • Law firms evolve. The fictional firm that Florrick joined was named Stern, Lockhart & Gardner during the premier and then went through various iterations through the remaining seven seasons. It’s a reminder that law firm naming conventions have their own trends (ampersands, no ampersands, commas, no commas, initials rather than names, two names rather than a long list, one name rather than a long list, and on and on). This is a reminder that creating a written firm history while people still remember it might be a good idea. It’s also a good reminder that clients are likely to have difficulty remembering the name of their lawyer’s law firm if it changes frequently. Surely, simplicity in law firm naming helps. So does stability in law firm management.
  • Associates are expendable. Associates at the Lockhart Gardner firm came and went pretty quickly in many of these episodes, and their loss typically was not regretted by management. In fact, departures were often instigated by management. Yes, sometimes, there would be quality-of-life issues raised in episodes as some lawyers struggled with an either-or existence: You can either be a good lawyer or a good mom. Being both might just be impossible. Consider the Caitlin d’Arcy episodes. After Alicia has to mentor partner David Lee’s niece Caitlin (played by Anna Camp), who has been hired at the firm, Caitlin abruptly quits for the sake of love and pregnancy. Jobs are expendable, too. Real life is not.
  • Partners are expendable. Lawyers might be professionally partnered, but they are not necessarily friends, or even advocates, of each other. On “The Good Wife,” there was always a lot of maneuvering among the managing partners about who had the votes to do what. Weaknesses tended to be exploited — think about how the elderly and seemingly forgetful Howard Lyman, played by Jerry Adler, was treated over the years. Howard’s story line is also a pertinent reminder that law firms need to be careful about retirement matters and about designating older partners as counsel or as senior partners or as partners emeritus.
  • Office romances happen: Will Gardner-Alicia Florrick, Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi)-Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry), Peter Florrick-Kalinda Sharma. What will you do, if anything, when one, or several, romances blossom at your law firm? Firms might consider policies on office romances, and individuals working at law firms might just want to consider that romantic alignments might be impacting their workaday existences. Lawyers and those who support their work tend to spend a lot of time at the office. Liaisons happen.
  • Confidentiality is hard to maintain when everyone is working in a big bay. The open floorplan of Florrick Agos, the firm created after Alicia and Cary teamed up, created great story lines but would have been a real-world nightmare what with clients popping in and being able to roam. This is a good reminder of the importance of a firm escort from the reception area to the destination. Don’t leave clients free to snoop. Make sure someone knows where those clients are at all times.
  • Glass-walled conference rooms are also great for drama and not so much for confidentiality. Too many people could see what was going on at Lockhart Gardner through those never-curtained conference rooms.
  • There are going to be deals and compromises. Even in the last episode as Peter’s trial is taking place, his lawyers are negotiating with prosecutors for a deal. There always is a bit of a gamble involved.
  • Sometimes it helps to know people who can help you out. If you do happen to know people, you’ll be accused of getting help anyway. Right at the outset of the show, others attempted to diminish Alicia’s performance by asserting that her once high-powered, in-the-know but imprisoned husband was feeding her information. It was her high-powered, in-the-know law school buddy who helped her get a job after she had been out of the workforce for more than a decade. Reminder: stay in touch.
  • Get to know judges. Judges’ track records, their quirks, and their general fondness either for the firm or for individual lawyers at it generally were matters discussed in episodes. If you are going to be a litigator, you are going to have to understand the judiciary and the different abilities and biases of its members. Fortunately, there are aids like the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary (full disclosure: years ago, I was one of the almanac’s editors) and report cards on judges.
  • Fellow associates are your competitors. This was established in the very first episode when Alicia and Cary were pitted against one another as competitors for a permanent position as an associate. Fellow associates might one day be your partners, though, as the Florrick Agos firm later proved.
  • There are always ethical quandaries, and there aren’t always neat solutions. Follow the law, follow the rules, try not to drink too much wine.
  • Lawyers mature and become better at their business. Alicia made a trajectory from a not entirely confident associate to a partner who could take on anything, anyone.
  • Lawyers returning to the workplace after time away have developed skills that can be useful. Alicia was not as sure of her abilities at the outset of the series, but she performed well despite her own doubts and those of others.
  • It’s rough out there, whether you are an associate or a partner. Managing a career, making the right decisions, working late nights, fending off competition, dealing with a shrinking market, fighting for the attention of legal secretaries or legal assistants can wear on one’s soul. Try not to drink too much wine. Enter into an office romance at your peril.
  • Sometimes you have to hustle. Alicia Florrick had to do that at the start of the series, and she was still hustling at the beginning of the final season when she is working on bail arrangements as a sole practitioner. At various points in the series, Lockhart Gardner had to take clients its lawyers didn’t exactly admire (drug kingpin Lemond Bishop, creepy Colin Sweeney).
  • State court does not operate in quite the same way as federal court does. Understand the differences and use them to your advantage.
  • Law firms have to pay their landlords just as other businesses and individuals do. Sometimes, they can't make the rent.
  • Despite the vagaries of the legal business, it’s great out there, whether you are an associate or a partner. Where else can someone engage in such challenging  and rewarding work? Do you ever get the sense that Alicia hated her job? Me, not at all.