A Golden Age for Lawyers Who Are Good at Talking on TV

From a Washington Post story by Paul Farhi headlined “A new ‘golden age’ for lawyers who are good at talking on TV”:

During his time as a TV legal analyst, former federal prosecutor Elliot Williams has weighed in on such topics as immigration policy, rules of evidence and federal sentencing guidelines. But he has had few days as demanding as the ones that followed Donald Trump’s indictment this month.

Barely 12 hours after the former president divulged that he had been hit with federal charges in the Mar-a-Lago documents case, Williams slid into his seat on the CNN set in Washington at 8 a.m. June 9 to offer his first bit of live commentary. Then he kept going, popping up six more times during the day. His last “hit” was at 11:30 p.m.

When Trump appeared in federal court four days later for his arraignment, Williams went at it again, appearing another seven times over a 12-hour span.

The demand for his services suggests the dawning of what Williams jokingly calls “a golden age of TV legal analysts.” Trump’s busy season of courthouse activity is only part of the reason TV news bookers keep putting out the call for Williams and his ilk. A slew of Supreme Court decisions, police shootings, the investigation of the Alec Baldwin “Rust” incident, Hunter Biden’s tax and gun misdemeanor plea deal and the Fox-Dominion defamation case have turned a growing number of lawyers into cable-news fixtures. The varsity team includes Williams and Laura Coates on CNN, Jonathan Turley and Andrew McCarthy on Fox News, and Joyce Vance and Barbara McQuade on MSNBC, among many others.

Although their typical role is to interpret and explain the latest legal development, their pronouncements occasionally become news, too. Turley, who has been generally sympathetic toward Trump, generated a few headlines earlier this month when he described the federal government’s evidence against the former president as “extremely damning” and said that Trump could spend the rest of his life in prison if found guilty on even one of the 37 counts.

Trump, of course, has been a gift to TV lawyers well before his most recent run-in with the law. Former federal prosecutors Elie Honig and Andrew Weissmann started getting lots of face time, on CNN and MSNBC, respectively, during Trump’s first impeachment. (Weissmann, a law professor, was the lead prosecutor for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Trump from 2017-2019.) Another Fox legal analyst, Gregg Jarrett, has largely built his commentary career on his vigorous defenses of Trump since his election in 2016.

The pandemic and the 2020 election brought a lull to all the TV legal talk, but it picked up again with Trump’s election challenges in 2020; the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol; and his second impeachment, in 2021. And now Trump’s pair of indictments in New York and Miami, as well as the defamation and sexual battery lawsuit won by the writer E. Jean Carroll and the prospect of more federal or local charges means continued full employment for TV’s legal fraternity for some time to come.

Williams, now a principal with a Washington public-affairs firm, appeared on CNN at least 300 times last year, more than many of the network’s reporters. He says he prefers to explain the law rather than pronounce judgments.

“There’s so much that we don’t know the answer to,” he told The Washington Post about Trump’s indictment. “There are so many variables to get us from today to conviction. Does the indictment get thrown out? Does it go to trial? Does he get acquitted? Does he plead to a lesser charge to avoid jail time?”

Trained in the art of precise and narrow arguments, lawyers aren’t always a natural fit for the give and take of cable news’s panel debates.

“As lawyers, it’s difficult for us to shut up,” said Sara Azari, a Los Angeles defense attorney who recently signed on as legal analyst for the fledgling NewsNation cable station after appearances on multiple networks. On TV, “you can’t get into the weeds of analysis. You have to speak in sound bites. … You need to speak in a digestible way that the audience can understand and relate to.”

Early in her TV career, she was advised by a producer to “dumb it down”: Don’t assume viewers understand the legal system in detail or are willing to sit still for elaborate explanations. It’s advice she has followed ever since. “You’re not speaking to an appellate panel,” she said.

Williams avoids using any acronym less familiar than “FBI,” on the assumption that it will confuse nonexpert viewers. When speaking about the Constitution, he’ll briefly spell out the thrust of one of its provisions — the Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants the right to a speedy trial, for example — rather than assume viewers recognize it by name.

TV news seems to prefer ex-prosecutors over defense attorneys, such as Daniel S. Goldman, a former federal prosecutor under Preet Bharara in New York who logged a few seasons as an NBC and MSNBC analyst before rotating back into government service as the lead counsel in the House’s first impeachment inquiry against Trump in 2019. Last year, he took his telegenic talents into politics, winning a seat in Congress as a Democrat.

The dean of the TV legal slingers may be Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who, in a commentary career stretching back to the first Bush administration, has worked for CBS, NBC, the BBC and now Fox.

Turley’s defenses of Trump — he cast doubt on the case for the first impeachment in 2019 and savaged New York City’s Trump prosecution in April — have made him anathema at times to Democrats. On Tuesday, he said that Hunter Biden, the president’s son, got off easy by pleading to misdemeanor tax and gun charges. (“When it came to Trump they rolled out a B-52, and this is going to look like a crop duster,” he opined on the air.) But Turley claims he’s just calling it as he sees it.

“There are two pressures” on a TV legal analyst, Turley said. “One is to encapsulate issues while not misrepresenting the importance or complexities [of the law]. And two: Every news organization wants to be first” — not just to report the news but also to analyze what it might mean.

Turley acknowledges that television may not be the best forum for discussing or explaining complicated legal concepts. But he also says it’s an undeniably powerful platform, reaching millions of people who otherwise might not understand the nuances and subtleties of the law.

And so, he has gamely gone on air to do live analysis of Supreme Court decisions moments after the majority opinion was distributed — leaving almost no time to read the ruling, let alone think about its implications.

“Those are moments that try one’s soul,” he said. “I’ve said I hope I’m reincarnated as a political analyst, because then I don’t have to be right. As an academic and a legal analyst, there’s more pressure on me to be right.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post’s media reporter. He started at The Post in 1988 and has been a financial reporter, a political reporter and a Style reporter.

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