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“Dear Mr. Sardo” Suggestions for Fairly Legal

In Fairly Legal, Sarah Shahi stars as a former attorney turned mediator, working in one of San Francisco’s top (fictional) law firms, Reed & Reed. This letter is a top ten “plus-delta,” feedback designed to show what is going well and what needs to be changed. These fixes can transform this program into a hit drama, which would be such a boost for the mediation profession. It is hoped that producer Sardo will take to heart these suggestions to ensure that his creative product will, indeed, achieve its full potential. The underlying theme of this letter is that Fairly Legal has the seeds to sprout into the first hit in television drama featuring a mediator. As such, Mr. Sardo has the opportunity and obligation to help audiences better understand mediation. Media messages about mediation matter.

Dear Mr. Sardo:
As a professional mediator, I have been a devoted viewer of your new drama, Fairly Legal, since its pilot on January 20, 2011. Your show has all the potential to become a hit. I applaud your courage and risk-taking in choosing to write about a profession not in established genres such as police or law enforcement, hospital dramas, forensics medicine or political dramas. The following top ten “plus-delta” is from a mediator who, like Kate, is not afraid to express her point of view and who hopes you will take the necessary steps to make a good thing better. A plus-delta is a feedback strategy that demonstrates what is going well and what needs to be changed.  
The delta – top five needed changes:
5.    Delete the slapstick. Slapstick demeans drama and wastes time by dissolving into cheap jokes, often physical, that fail to develop character, plot or relationships. Yes, a drama needs humor; there are many other sources of humor from which to choose. Choose wisely.
4.    Get rid of the fast-forward transitions. Watching cable cars whiz down Powell Street at advanced speeds became a cliché in the pilot. You lose the opportunity to show off the picturesque San Francisco urban landscape, for which you are, no doubt, paying a premium. Shooting in Vancouver to save money unfortunately dilutes the San Francisco effect. Relocate to San Francisco for greater authenticity. Pockets of natural beauty punctuate The City, peopled by cosmopolitans from all over the world. Its beauty and diversity are lost in transition.
3.    Put at least one experienced attorney-mediator on your consulting staff. Your scenes need to be grounded in the reality of the day-to-day workings of a law firm and the courtroom. For example, opposing parties would not be left together in a conference room without the mediator or other staff as they were in the pilot, throwing fruit at one another. A judge would never direct a bailiff to handcuff a mediator to a settee in the hallway for being four minutes late.
        Many attorneys have indeed traded the courtroom for the conference room, that is, have quit litigating to become mediators. There are so many different motivations to do so; money and injustice are not the only reasons. Your consultants will be able to provide many such motivations, which would play out in Kate’s decisions and actions, making her more multi-dimensional.
       Further, Kate’s ethos needs to be grounded in the reality of the profession of mediation. Every lawyer turned mediator I know is still a lawyer. They retrain their licenses and refer to themselves as lawyer-mediators. Cease referring to Kate as someone who left the legal profession to become a mediator. She is a lawyer who has, like my own partner in mediation, chosen to do mediation only.  
       In addition, there are many different types, styles, and goals of mediation. You did a good job of portraying “win-win” as a goal of mediation in the pilot; thank you very much. There is so much more to say about mediation. Make Kate try some of the other forms of mediation instead of using the same style over and over. One blogger described her style as a “coercive” mediator; the moniker accurately describes Kate’s aggressive behavior in mediation, but not a category in any mediation training I have ever attended. Another blogger refers to her as an “evaluative mediator on steroids.” This is not positive feedback from the professionals.

Mediation is about empowering parties to find the best solutions for themselves, not about imposing solutions on the clients. Kate’s style is as controlling as any litigating attorney. Suffuse the show with mediation values, grounded in the reality of the profession. Get Kate out of her comfort zone; let her grow both as a person and as a mediator. She could sometimes be a facilitative mediator or a transformational mediator or an evaluative mediator, depending on the situation and on the parties and issues in conflict. Consulting mediators can provide an interesting variety of cases and styles from which your writers can choose.

Having Kate teach about mediation to the staff of Assistant District of Attorney Justin Patrick, played by Michael Trucco, in Episode 6 “Believers” is a stroke of genius. Encore! However, the instructor would not have the authority to double the number of credits the participants would attain as Kate promised. Your consultants would help you avoid this kind of error. Give Kate’s lectures depth and let us see her carry out these principles in action. Case studies are a great way to teach. In a future training, she could refer to a prior case that would be dramatically reenacted for her colleagues and for your audience.
2.    Hire writers who understand dramatic tension. Dramatic tension is easily confused with conflict which is not the equivalent. You can have dramatic tension without conflict or worse, conflict without dramatic tension which is what is happening in Fairly Legal. Dramatic tension resides in the expectations of the audience: the fear of something happening (or not happening); surprise, anxiety, suspense. To sustain a drama, you need dramatic tension that is grounded in the emotions of the audience.
       Dramatic tension results from the questions in the viewer’s mind put there by writers who understand how to do it. I apologize for the tautology in the last sentence, but to explain how to create dramatic tension is not the purpose of this letter. Hire writers who know how. Choosing a conflict of the week to do the job of dramatic tension will not result in enduring drama.
1.    The number one fix needed is the development of Kate’s character and her relationship with others.
You are doing a great job with the dynamics between Kate and her stepmother, Lauren Reed. Sometimes they are forced to be friends, sometimes not. They are struggling to establish boundaries and negotiating the power between them as widow and daughter of deceased founder Teddy Reed. Jousting over the memory of the man they both loved dearly makes for interesting dynamics.
       Unfortunately, the dynamics between Justin and Kate are not so interesting. The opening sequence of the pilot began with the two in bed, a morning after scene as they hustle to get to work on time. You have nicely established what a gorgeous couple this is. Other than having perfect bodies, what is the appeal between them? What is their history? What compelled them to marry? What brought them to divorce? The only ambiguity in the relationship is the extent to which it is over. We should know much more about them midway through the series.
       The recent sequence with Justin’s tit for tat with the nude exhibitionist on the balcony opposite his apartment was another blatant opportunity to display as much of his nakedness as you could get away with. Nudity is not the stuff of enduring drama. Also, his ongoing borderline abuse of his position as assistant district attorney gives him a sleazy cast. His lack of ethics demeans Kate, not suitable for a leading man of quality. If his lack of ethics is why they are divorcing (divorced?), then her ongoing sexual affair with him makes Kate appear shallow and as motivated by her gonads as any male.

While I am on the topic of sex and gender, please, have Kate rely on something other than her beautiful eyes to persuade clients to adopt her solutions. If you would incorporate true mediation values, the mediator as facilitator, Kate would help clients would find their own solutions. She would then not have to resort to flirting to achieve positive outcomes.
The plus – What works:
5.  The cast. A quirky, beautiful lead actress (Sarah Shahi) playing a passionate character both vulnerable and assertive along with a talented supporting cast. Your casting, so far, in my opinion, has been pitch-perfect. Keep up the good work. Since there is no such thing as a “minor” role, continue to pay as much attention to the casting of temporary characters as you have with the leads. Unfortunately for us mediators with waists, you might be creating the false expectation that mediators should be model thin with perfect complexions.
There is genuine chemistry between Kate and Justin and between Kate and her assistant Leonardo Prince, played by Baron Vaughn. Nicely done.
4. Improvement. The show has gotten better since its pilot. Kate’s mediations seem less contrived and more realistic. The main characters, with the possible exception of Kate’s stepmother Lauren Reed, played by Virginia Williams, have developed beyond stereotypes. Perhaps Lauren’s necklaces get in the way. Each character is likeable, personable, and sympathetic.
3. Themes presented in the series are universal, timely and Interesting: women competing in a man’s profession, a daughter’s grief over the loss of her father, modern sexual mores among young urban professionals, two women competing mano-a-mano for professional and personal power, how to juggle the competing demands of personal and professional life. Each theme, so relevant today, resonates with the potential to be orchestrated into enduring drama.
2. You have the opportunity to portray how mediators actually work in mediation, a field not well understood, even or especially by attorneys who feel threatened by it. Mediation is often described as an “alternative” method of resolving conflict. As such, it commands second class status. By depicting the resources and value mediators bring to warring combatants, you can strip the myth from the reality of the field. Since ongoing conflict is a given in human behavior, you can help your audience better understand how conflict works psychologically; the payoffs and tradeoffs. Part of this understanding will come from your dramatic enactments of how conflict is resolved not by violence but by people working together voluntarily to find solutions. Finding solutions together: a new concept for a medium whose newscasters follow the credo, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
1. Mediation is a process that works not only face to face in interpersonal conflicts but also among battling corporations, government agencies, educational institutions, and in international affairs. In real life, diplomacy has failed to bring peace to the world. A mediator, through her skills as a conflict resolution specialist, has that potential. Use it. Let Kate mediate a dispute between a Middle Eastern dictator and a leader of an uprising, entitled, “The Mediator as Messiah.” Think large.
There, you have it; feedback from one very interested viewer who happens to be a mediator and who sees much good in what you have accomplished. Keep up the good work.

Miriam Zimmerman


Miriam L. Zimmerman

In 2001, Miriam L. Zimmerman co-founded Divorce Mediation Group, a team mediation practice in the San Francisco Bay area with offices in San Mateo and Sunnyvale, CA. Communication degrees from Northwestern University (BS), San Francisco State University (MA), and a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of San Francisco… MORE >

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