Nearly four years ago, Friend of the Blog Derek Allen and I published an article on our Top 10 Fictional Lawyers of all time. Part 1 and Part 2 are etched in the tomes of Duets Blog for your perusal and criticism. It was difficult to decide on the top ten, but we felt like we covered our bases pretty well with a long list of “honorable mentions.” Yet I recently realized there was a glaring omission from our list, Mr. Oliver Babish from the television series The West Wing, played by the actor Oliver Platt. I knew it was necessary to amend the list as soon as possible (i.e., the next time I was scheduled to post) to correct this injustice, and pass along some nuggets of legal advice that Mr. Babish provided to us all.
With this year’s increased attention to political issues of all kinds, I continued to find myself remembering scenes from the show. When my wife mentioned she had recently finished a new series, and I realized she had not seen The West Wing, the choice was obvious. So now we are knee deep in Season 3, when Mr. Babish arrives. I’ll try to avoid any significant spoilers, but Mr. Babish’s arrival coincides with a major scandal involving all of the main characters of the show, from the President and the First Lady too the assistants, deputies, and advisors. Mr. Babish interviews each of them, one by one, to assist in determining whether any law has been broken, fighting most of them along the way. While each character is initially frustrated and annoyed with Mr. Babish’s questions, he quickly makes clear why his questions are so important. While the substance of the inquiries likely has no direct impact on our lives, I’d like to provide three pearls of wisdom that both lawyers and non-lawyers would do well to remember.
First, gather all the facts before you form an opinion. After speaking with the President for (presumably) a half hour or more, he leaves for another meeting. The Chief of Staff asks, “Well, what do you think?” Babish’s answer? “I am nowhere close to being able to answer that.” Don’t give your clients, fellow attorneys, or others advice based on incomplete advice. When it can’t be avoided, stick to the law school standby “it depends.”
The second pearl involves the White House Press Secretary, C.J. Cregg. In the midst of asking substantive questions, the following exchange occurs:
- Oliver Babish: Do you know what time it is?
- C.J. Cregg: It’s five past noon.
- Oliver Babish: I’d like you to get out of the habit of doing that.
- C.J. Cregg: Doing what?
- Oliver Babish: Answering more than was asked.
- Oliver Babish: Do you know what time it is?
- C.J. Cregg: Yes.
The point is that C.J. will likely be subpoenaed to testify and be deposed. While limiting the answers is part of the goal, this advice has the added benefit of conditioning a person to focus on the question and think through the answer before speaking. This is great advice not just for those being deposed, but all of us when we’re engaged in important conversations, legal or otherwise.
Finally, the third pearl is that words matter apart from their substance. While questioning the First Lady, Babish is focused on the First Lady’s signing a form on behalf of her then 17 year old daughter (Warning: Possible Spoilers ahead). The First Lady states she doesn’t remember if she read it or not, she just signed it. It was one of hundreds or thousands of forms signed for her multiple children over many years. The reason this matters, is because the President (Spoiler Alert) was diagnosed with MS during the campaign, but never disclosed it. If the First Lady signed the form, then she may have falsely stated that there was no family history of medical problems. When she claims she didn’t read it, Babish asks her whether when she was a practicing doctor whether she had a habit of signing medical forms without reading them. When the First Lady explains that the illness is not genetic and therefore it doesn’t matter for the form’s purpose of determining whether her daughter might have the illness, Babish asks why she’s changing her story? Did she sign it because she didn’t read it, or did she sign it because it didn’t matter? It’s important for lawyers, our clients, and most people generally to remember Babish’s point: the way you say something is just as important as the substance of what you’re saying.
These are just some of the helpful nuggets for lawyers and others found in Mr. Platt’s Oliver Babish character. The guest performance netted him a nomination for an Emmy for best guest performance in a drama. Where would a place him in the Top 10 Fictional Lawyers of All Time? I’d probably have to do some reshuffling, so let’s peg him at #11 for now and perhaps we’ll revisit on the fifth year anniversary.