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  • Max Stearns

Pearson Specter (some spoilers)

Suits, originally a USA series, now on Netflix, is entertaining, quick-paced, and troubling. The acting is solid, well-modulated, or suited, to the small screen. The premise is simple: boy genius Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams) holds great academic promise but stumbles following a fateful decision involving his best friend’s drug deal, cutting his academic career tragically short. In a remarkable twist, this sequence of events provides Mike the chance to pretend having graduated Harvard Law School and to work as an associate under the guidance of top New York City lawyer, Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht), at the prestigious—Harvard (almost) only—law firm, Pearson Hardman.

The world Suits creates is fun, rapid-paced, and entertaining. It is not law. Indeed, it is antithetical to law. It also comes, at times, frustratingly close to touching on Jewish stereotypes in ways that have caused other commentators, not entirely without foundation, to raise questions. Although I’ll touch on that latter point, as a law professor who has also practiced law, I’m particularly interested in the former. Suits is not a show about the law, the practice of law, or law firm culture. It is, instead, about toxic masculinity, of the stereotypical white-male sort, but updated to convey that in our arguably more enlightened age, a tall, beautiful African-American woman, Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres), the firm’s brilliant managing partner, can be even more so than the most alpha of them all. Progress.

Mike Ross is a boy wonder, of the same sort, and with equal implausibility, as the protagonist in Good Will Hunting. Like Will Hunting (Matt Damon), Mike Ross has read a lot, and based on that alone, is presented as fully versed, in this instance, in the law. The show’s other premise, beyond an elite firm’s willingness to knowingly hire a fraud, is the equally implausible pretense that a lawyer can entirely self-educate by reading the right books. The series presents law as a thing to be “known,” as if by injection, such that once the knowledge is acquired, all that’s left is an endless series of strategies and counterstrategies, essentially high-level, and high-stakes, street fighting. In fact, the nature of these strategic moves and countermoves are peculiarly unaffected even when Mike is no longer playing the role of lawyer.

Of course, law doesn’t work this way. Although a tiny percentage of aspiring lawyers still read the law, typically under the professional guidance of an established lawyer, rather than attending law school, reading books alone won’t make a lawyer of Mike Ross. Professional training in law, or any other highly skilled profession, requires acquiring and applying relevant knowledge and tools over and over again, constantly refining one's skills, and gaining greater nuance and depth of understanding. Consider uber-paralegal Rachel Zane (Meghan Markle). The daughter of a famed African American lawyer, Robert Zane (Wendell Pierce), a sometime opponent of the Pearson firm, Rachel initially struggles with the LSAT, earning a high enough score, we are led to understand, for just about any law school except Harvard, the only school she initially is willing to consider. Rachel is presented as more knowledgeable and adept than many, perhaps most (other than Mike), of the Pearson associates. After a series of maneuvers, the firm ultimately agrees to fund her (non-Harvard) education and to commit to hiring her even before she takes her very first law school class. The point isn’t merely that no law firm would do that or that no applicant would rigidly insist on a single law school, even Harvard. Rather, it is that just as no law firm would knowingly hire Mike Ross, no law school applicant, no matter how smart, already possesses a broader understanding of “the law” than those who have completed their formal law school training. Becoming a lawyer is a process, not an event. Reading books is an important part, but only a part, of that training.

The Suits world is not devoid of morality, but the moral code is peculiar. It updates, while embracing, 1950s sexual sensibilities, while also eschewing legal ethics, whose requirements are treated as background annoyances, stumbling blocks for weak lawyers. Up to Season 4, episode 5 (I'm about halfway through the series), morality is tied, if not to monogamy, at least to extended serial commitment once a commitment is made. Suits morality is antithetical to Madmen amorality, or other series that seem motivated to explore just how many rendezvous combinations a given cast can achieve. (Admittedly, watching them unfold better entertains than factorial analysis). The Suits moral code is on full display with Daniel Hardman (David Constabile), the original named partner in season one. Hardman is ultimately brought down as a result of an affair that began while his wife was still alive, more so than for having stolen client funds.

In the jockeying world of Suits, the goal is invariable and simple—win. And at any cost, even if that means approaching, and sometimes crossing, established ethical lines. This includes, if necessary, using embarrassing personal information to advantage even if unrelated to the case or even the immediate parties. Failing to do whatever is needed to win is a sign of weakness. But this stylized 1950s-style morality play is not devoid of constraint, even beyond relationship commitments. It is likewise unacceptable to directly and personally profit from wrongdoing. Any wrongdoing is justified, provided, that is, it benefits the client or the firm, rather the lawyer personally. This is where Hardman, one of two known Jewish lawyers, who makes his debut at his wife’s Shiva, crossed the line, first with the affair, and second, by stealing client funds, allegedly to help finance her care.

The other Jewish lawyer is Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman). Unlike Daniel, and certainly unlike Harvey, Suits’s ultimate alpha male, Litt constantly struggles simply to fit in. This is despite his apparent genius for complex financial transactions. Litt’s predilections are unmasculine. He’s obsessed with mud baths, cats, and theater, and he’s deeply emotional and constantly insecure. More than anything, he longs for Harvey’s fickle friendship, and he’s often willing to cross ethical lines to win the favor of Harvey or Jessica. Litt is a brutal taskmaster with the firm associates, despite generally holding them, in his peculiar way, in deep affection. Long before Litt played Shylock, I kept wondering if it wasn’t just a bit too obvious that he was constantly seeking a proverbial pound of flesh.

My favorite Suits character is Donna Roberta Paulson (Sarah Rafferty), Harvey’s secretary. Donna is beautiful, smart, empathetic, loyal (to Harvey), and willing to call things as she sees them, damn the consequences. She is the firm’s moral compass, such as it is, and she’s willing to steer even at great personal sacrifice if that’s what’s required. I was merely somewhat uneasy about the Jewish portrayals in Suits until last night’s episode, in which Donna was cast as Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Litt discovers that Donna is struggling with her lines immediately before opening night, and he offers to help because, of course, he has memorized Shakespeare’s entire body of work, including all thirty-seven plays. Yes, thirty-seven plays. Is it a coincidence that the one Suits chose, and that Donna uses to empower Litt by having him temporarily fill in for the lead, moved my lingering concern front and center?

In too many respects, our culture has obliterated traditional boundaries between news, culture, and entertainment. Those watching Suits might well imagine that although it is fiction, they nonetheless are witness to something resonant, that is, beyond watching the first American and mixed-race woman to join Britain’s Royal Family. Viewers might imagine that what they are viewing isn’t merely entertainment, but that it provides insight into the law, law firm life, Jewish culture, and race. Suits is entertaining, but, in my view, the show isn’t well-tailored beyond that.

[Correction: My original email and post mistakenly implied this was a Netflix original series, which it is not.]

I welcome your comments.

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