Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Federal Reporters as Props on Television

Most television shows don’t accurately portray lawyers or the job of being a lawyer, and I’ve gotten used to it. You never see lawyers doing any of the truly day to day work, and I suppose that’s fine. After all, who wants to watch a television show about a guy writing a brief or sitting in a deposition?

One of the thing that totally irritates me, though, and I see it all the time, is the use of legal books as props in completely inane locations. Particularly, the federal reporters, which look like this:

(There are federal reporters for appellate courts, federal supplement reporters for district courts, and Supreme Court reporters, for Supreme Court cases. They all look pretty much identical for purposes of this blog post, although Supreme Court reporters are usually much thicker, so for ease here I’m just going to refer to them all as “federal reporters.”  They are all beige, red, black, and gold like in the picture above.)

Today’s example is How I Met Your Mother. I was catching up on some reruns last night on Lifetime, since I think the show is pretty funny, but somehow I always forget to watch it.

During the early seasons, Marshall was in law school. On the console table behind the couch in the apartment he and Ted shared, there are three or four federal reporters. A regular person might see this and think nothing of it. However, being a lawyer, I find it to be complete laziness on the part of whoever set up the props for that room.

Here is what I am talking about:

Not a great picture, but it was all I could find on the Internet.  See them lined up there behind Ted? The thickness and number varied across the few episodes I watched.

Here’s why it is absolutely inane and ridiculous that a law student would have these books in his apartment:

1. These are not books that can be checked out of any legal library; they are reference books.

2. These books are used to publish all of the federal court case opinions that are decided across the country (depending on district court, appellate court, or Supreme Court), and the cases inside of them are arranged by date, not subject matter. So, in the federal reporter supplement you might have a Delaware case on personal jurisdiction, followed by a Northern District of California case on a motion to compel documents, followed by an Eastern District of Texas case on summary judgment of a patent invalidity claim, followed by a Southern District of New York case dealing with some constitutional law issue, etc. In short, this is not a book that anyone reads straight through. It is used to look up and read specific cases, and goes right back on the shelf.

3. There are thousands of volumes of federal reporters. You would never have any reason to keep one or two sitting around once you finished looking up the case you wanted to read.

4. The odds that you would regularly need one or two volumes are basically slim to none.

5. Marshall would probably just look up the cases online using Westlaw or Lexis.

Okay, okay, I guess it’s possible Marshall bought a few of these used on eBay for decoration, but really?  Who does this?  And I know the books look pretty, but regularly on television shows you see set decorations with three or five of these sitting nicely on a shelf in someone’s office. If you watch a lot of lawyer shows, you will see this a lot. In the real world, this makes no sense at all. If I have any of these in my office, they are scattered, open, all over my desk – not lined up pretty on a shelf between bookends. They are in use, so to speak.

You also sometimes see nearly an entire set of these lining the walls of someone’s office on television, or even more oddly, the walls of their office at home. In real life, these books are very expensive and there are thousands of volumes of them, so most law firms have one set. (This works, because the odds that two people are going to need the exact same volume at the exact same time are again, slim to none.) Depending on the size of the firm, there might be two or three sets. In no way would they ever be kept in someone’s office. If they were, people would be wandering in and out all day grabbing volumes. Who would ever want that? And while maybe a few people in the country have a full set of these suckers at home, I can’t imagine most normal people would even consider it.

Oh well, I guess we all have these little quibbles about how our profession is portrayed on television.


  1. My dad is a radiologist. I went to a movie with him once, and the opening scene is a girl who gets into an accident and hurts her wrist. At the hospital, a doctor holds up an x-ray and says, "You got lucky, nothing's broken!" I was *mortified* when my dad shouted in disgust "Yes it is, that's a clear radial fracture!" *lol* He spent the rest of the movie complaining about Prop Masters who couldn't be bothered to get an x-ray of an un-broken wrist for the shot!

  2. Ha ha! You'd think they could make sure something that simple is correct! Same with these books. No one I know has these books in their apartment, much less in law school. Ugh.....drives me crazy!