Columns > Published on July 16th, 2014

Lawyers: Pros or Cons? Part 1 — Why Lawyers Suck

Q: “How many lawyer jokes are there?”

A: “One. The rest are true stories.”

Lawyers have a rotten reputation. On that point there’s no argument. But I’m here to tell you why writers in particular should view lawyers as a human form of the plague and avoid them at all costs. No, I take that back: they’re not quite as bad as a disease that causes buboes full of blood and pus to break out all over the body and kills its victims in a matter of days. I misspoke.

We should avoid lawyers about ninety-five percent of the time. That remaining five percent is critical; you don’t want to be sued for libel. No, sir! You definitely don’t want to be sued for libel. But the rest of the time, lawyers only get in the way. They gum up the works. You have to beg them to let you keep the most reasonable word choices. They cite “requirements” that are nothing but bullshit. They are not writers’ friends. By and large, lawyers suck.

We should avoid lawyers about ninety-five percent of the time.

But before getting into the details, let me state for the record that I have loved many lawyers in my life. My father was a lawyer in the small town where I grew up, and he helped poor and working class people get through divorces, inheritance problems, adoptions, real estate transfers, and minor civil and criminal actions, always charging far less than his advice was worth. He was known to accept homegrown vegetables and homemade kielbasa and pickled pigs’ feet in lieu of his full fee. (It was a town full of Polish immigrants.) My best friend from college is a lawyer. He helps multinational corporations make billions of dollars. My sister-in-law is a lawyer. She helps hospitals avoid lawsuits launched by the families of patients who never made it off the operating table. Maybe I should stop there; this isn’t turning out to be quite the paragraph I imagined when I started it.

Evidence: The Totally Unnecessary Signed Agreement

Here’s a true story. In fact, every story told in this article is true, and I can vouch for that fact because every one of them happened to me.

When I wrote my first biography, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, the legal counsel to my publisher, Hyperion, insisted that I obtain written and signed statements from all of my interview subjects stating that they agreed to allow Hyperion to print whatever they said and promised that they would not launch a lawsuit against Hyperion. The next two biographies — Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers and Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis — also came with this impossible-to-fulfill "requirement." This is what is known as an “interview killer."

I  would refuse to sign such a document, and nobody wanted to interview me, especially not about a famous, wealthy, important film director who might not like unflattering things to be printed about him. Mr. Wilder was alive when the book was written and published; Sellers and Davis were safely in their graves, but the people I hoped to interview were obviously very much alive. How on earth could I get anyone to dish Billy Wilder, Peter Sellers, and Bette Davis if I had to present each of them with a legalistic document with which they would sign their rights away to some asshole biographer they’d never even heard of before? And the people I was hoping to interview — including Susan Sarandon, Maggie Smith, Alec Guinness, Joan Fontaine, and Olivia de Havilland — were scarcely newcomers to the meaning of contracts and fine print.

I ended up interviewing all of them and many more (except de Havilland, who nonetheless wrote me three lovely letters on robins’ egg blue stationery, which I framed as a triptych). But in no case did I accede to the lawyers’ demands that I obtain written and signed statements from all my interview subjects waiving all rights.          

And guess what? The supposed requirement turned out to be a big fat nothing. Lawyers simply earned their outrageous fees — which per hour were spectacularly more than I was making for writing the goddamn books — by throwing roadblocks in my path, roadblocks I was smart enough to disregard. I simply said I wouldn’t do it, and the legal eagles backed down. Without an argument.

Evidence: The Non-Existent Rights Clause

My first book, Screwball, was devoted to the marvelous genre of romantic film comedies made in the 1930s and ‘40s in which love looked a lot like hate, and verbal and physical battles substituted for the sex that Hollywood’s Production Code suddenly forbade in 1934. It was a coffee table book. Screwball was meant to be full of photographs.

 The studios’ legal departments (and the studios’ successors’ legal departments — I’m thinking of Ted Turner in particular) maintained that they owned the rights to all the stills from these films, classics like Bringing Up Baby, The Awful Truth, The Thin Man series, Twentieth Century, and many others. They were lying.

 Stop the presses! Lawyers lied?!

 Funny thing: These legal departments, who asserted their ownership of these rights whenever someone was foolish enough to request permission to reproduce the photos, never launched any lawsuits against the many writers who failed to pay the exorbitant fees they quoted for the so-called right to reproduce them. Why not? Because they knew they’d lose such a legal battle, thereby creating a precedent they would find intolerable. They preferred instead to bully the gullible and extract as much cash as they could from them.

There’s such a thing as “fair use,” which guarantees writers and publishers the right to use fully ten percent of a work — a film, a book, a magazine article, and so on — without obtaining written permission, let alone paying a fee. In no case was I using even one one-thousandth of any film I was planning to reproduce. I wasn’t using any of the film; I wasn’t planning to use even a single frame enlargement. (And talk about ridiculous! Using one single frame from a feature-length film — 95 minutes equals 136,800 frames — couldn't possibly approach the ten percent fair use exception.) Moreover, I was using less than three or four percent (at most) of the photographs these studios had willingly produced for each film precisely in order for others to reproduce them. They were publicity photos, freely distributed by the studios expressly for the purpose of being reproduced. So I didn’t owe anyone a dime for the so-called rights, because the “rights” didn’t exist.

 My publisher, Crown, of course began by requiring me to show its lawyers the contracts I had supposedly signed with the studios granting me the “right” to reproduce the photos. I patiently explained why Crown’s lawyers were full of shit, and lo and behold: the “requirement” vanished.

Evidence: Perry Mason and the Case of the Meaningless Word

In one of the interviews I did for the Davis biography, one of her directors described one of Davis’s costars as “a bundle of neuroses.” He’d directed Davis in a very good television movie called Little Gloria: Happy at Last, about the troubled childhood of Gloria Vanderbilt. The costar in question was Glynnis Johns.

The lawyer for Henry Holt & Co., my publisher, presented me with a list of every name mentioned in the manuscript and told me to use it as the basis of what he called “the R.I.P. list” — the roster I was to compile of all the dead people who, not unexpectedly, were no longer in a position to sue Henry Holt or me for libel. Glynnis Johns was still alive at the time, so she didn’t earn a place on the treasured R.I.P. list. The lawyer then seized on the phrase “a bundle of neuroses” and demanded that I remove it.

“Why?” said I.

“Because she might sue.”

I was dumbfounded. I simply didn’t know what to say in response. After a few awkward moments, I managed to ask in a voice that was already trembling with rage, “On what basis could she possibly sue?”

We then spent about fifteen minutes — of billable time on the lawyer’s part, of course — batting back and forth the question of whether or not the phrase “bundle of neuroses” was defamatory. I finally came up with: “Look! Everybody in New York City…. Everybody in the entertainment industry…. Literally everybody on earth is neurotic!” He considered my point quietly for a few seconds and said, “Okay, you can keep it.” Only by describing a colorful quote as being essentially meaningless did I win the argument.

I hadn’t written that so-and-so was a drug addict or fucked animals or poisoned her husband. I’d quoted the director of the film describing an actress as neurotic. For this I fought tooth and nail. And the lawyer was most definitely on billing time. I was just a writer, so my time was literally worthless.

He also attempted to make me cut huge swaths of quotes from published interviews with Davis until I sat down at my desk at home and counted the exact number of words in every interview and the exact number of words I was quoting and did the simple arithmetic and found, in all cases, that I was far, far under the fair use allotment. What a colossal waste of time.

Summary Argument

Looked at in the cheeriest possible light, these lawyers were trying to protect me (and their clients, the publishers) from being sued. But in all these cases, their actions were nothing but a big, useless pain in the ass.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, based on the evidence presented to you, you have no choice but to find for the plaintiff:

Lawyers suck.

Stay tuned for a rebuttal! Until then, what's your opinion on lawyers?

About the author

Ed Sikov is the author of 7 books about films and filmmakers, including On Sunset Boulevard:; The Life and Times of Billy Wilder; Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers; and Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.

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