Popular culture has a disproportionately strong impact on community perspectives. Law school admission boards creak beneath piles of rejected applications from eager students, misled by shows such as Suits into thinking the profession is more glamorous than it is. Similarly, the ’90s drama, The Files of Justice (壹號皇庭), may have influenced local citizens’ views of Hong Kong courtrooms. So when mass media triggers popular discourse on the law or its practice or administration, many professionals, rightly, take note. Especially so, when that discourse is negative.
Speaking on this topic, the Secretary-General expresses concern in her letter this month that the depiction of the work of a Hong Kong law firm in a recent local television soap opera could, if taken at face value, damage the public’s perception of the local profession. However, she also seized upon this opportunity to remind readers of the profession’s core ethical values. In doing so, she illustrates how lawyers can proactively use different media sources in tandem to distinguish fiction from reality and positively influence public perception of their work and professional obligations.
For decades, lawyers have played it safe when using media to disseminate information to the public about the law and their work. Scholarly articles have been written, serious-faced advocates and judges have trooped onto television or radio talk shows to be interviewed, and some brave souls have dipped a toe in to the internet with professional blogs or online client alerts. All this is good and a sign of a healthy profession. Yet for a growing cohort of innovative lawyers and creative types, there is a better way: developing new content that not only informs, but that also appeals to our desire to be entertained, while remaining firmly based in reality.
For instance, the wildly popular American podcast known as Serial discussed a case involving the murder of a young Korean American girl Hae Min Lee by her Pakistani American ex-boyfriend Adnan. The reasons for Serial’s success are debatable: sequential storytelling, compelling subject-matter and an engaging narrator surely all played their part. Yet the more interesting and powerful aspect of Serial was its ability to engage both lawyers and non-lawyers in a prolonged discourse over proper courtroom procedure and the issue of race and the legal justice system in America, all without resorting to contrived fictional plots or cinematic glitz and glam. It distilled thousands of pages of real court transcripts, real witness testimony, and the like, in a language that was comprehensible and engaging to the general public. To many legal professionals, it also highlighted weaknesses in the legal justice system that required immediate attention. After it aired, it also had a real world impact: Adnan’s case was reopened to ensure he received a fair trial.
Much discussion of popular culture and the media focuses on its potential to cause harm through disseminating misinformation. Yet Serial, and its growing number of imitators, offers a tantalising new possibility: using media to spark inclusive and engaging discussions among culturally and professionally diverse groups about the law and the profession that are based in reality. We can only hope that more lawyers and creative types join forces in the years to come.