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A Chat With 'Deep End' Producer and BigLaw Refugee David Hemingson

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  • A Chat With 'Deep End' Producer and BigLaw Refugee David Hemingson

    Any LBers out there plan to tune into this new show — The Deep End — on Thursday?

    We know, we know. We can feel your skepticism. Hour-long prime-time legal dramas are nothing new — nor are legal “dramadies,” as this one’s being billed. Neither, for the record, are failures in the genre. (”Conviction” anyone?)

    But The Deep End has a hook that’s a little different — it’s a show about newbie lawyers. And it was the brainchild of a former BigLaw associate. Will it cut it? It takes a lot for a show to go from the twinkle-in-the-eye stage to the next “Lost.” But already it’s off and running with some nice advance press (here, here).

    To find out a little more about the show, we recently chatted briefly with David Hemingson, the show’s creator and executive producer. Hemingson is another one of these envy-stoking BigLaw refugees — like House’s Peter Blake.) After graduating from Columbia Law in 1990, he worked for a bit as an entertainment lawyer at Loeb & Loeb in LA, then started writing spec scripts in his spare time. Soon he was writing full-time, and busy climbing up the rungs of TinselTown.

    Hi David. Thanks for taking the time. Talk to us about how this happens — how one goes from BigLaw associate to successful Hollywood writer. Or at least how you did it.

    Sure. Well, I was pretty gung-ho on law coming out of Columbia, actually. I came out to LA in 1990 and worked in the entertainment department at Loeb & Loeb. It was nothing other than what was promised me. It was ferociously taxing. I got thrown into these crazy sprawling deals and was almost right away working 80 hour-weeks.

    I was pretty starry-eyed in regard to what I thought it was going to be and with what I was going to accomplish. Loeb was really a good place, but the deals just consumed my life immediately. Sure, the money was good. I got to go buy the Turnbill & Asser shirts, but you start to wonder whether it’s worth it after working 36 hours straight. That first year was just an incredible crucible — I think I billed something like 2500 hours.

    So how’d you make the switch?

    Well, I’d summered at Donovan Leisure and at Milbank, and I had a close friend from Milbank out here. We’d drive down to Orange County to another guy’s house and just hang out and jump off his roof into his pool and talk about how we all wanted to do something else at the time.

    I was 24 or 25 at the time and had the sense that I wanted to get into writing of some sort. At Columbia, I’d written for the law-school shows that got put on every year, and [as an undergrad at Yale] I’d done some of that too. That said, I couldn’t pull the trigger to do it.

    About that time, a buddy invited me to go rock climbing in Joshua Tree. I didn’t go, but another friend went, and while he was climbing, he slipped and fell to his death.

    It made a big impact on me. Life does not wait for you to [muster the courage] to do something. You have to do it now. So I decided to do it, to leave the firm and try writing.

    Did you have the money to do it?

    Sort of. I left the firm with just enough money to fuel my Top Ramen habit and put gas my Geo Storm.

    How’d you go about it?

    It’s a bit different now, but back in the day what you did was start writing spec scripts for existing shows. You’ve got to demonstrate that you can execute on a show that’s already out there, demonstrate that you can adopt a voice. So that’s what I did. I “specked” a few episodes of the Larry Sanders Show. That’s how I got an agent. From there, I got jobs at Nickelodeon and then Disney. My first show was the Adventures of Pete and Pete. It was a sort of insurgent Saturday morning show.

    And you’ve got other credits to your name, right? Kitchen Confidential and Family Guy?

    Right. And American Dad and How I Met Your Mother and Lie to Me. These days, I’m doing both writing and producing.

    And did you write much for the Deep End?

    Some. I look over every script. It’s important for one person to have fingers on every script. It helps the tone of the show stay consistent.

    The show premieres on Thursday at 8. You’re going up against the Must See TV franchise over at NBC, eh?

    Yeah, we’re going up against The Office. It’s tough but I think we can hold our own.

    Alright. Let’s talk about the show. What’s it all about?

    It’s really a reboot of the old legal drama. If you go all the way back to Perry Mason, of course there’s a rich tradition of law shows. But the one thing is that whether it’s The Practice or Ally McBeal, nobody’s ever done a show about freshly minted lawyers. You’ve got five enthusiastic kids with crushing educational debt. Nobody’s ever shone a light on that group. It can be an exhilarating time, but it can also be scary.

    In the pilot, one of the lawyers shows up on his first day thinking he’s five minutes early, when he’s in actuality 10 days late. That actually happened to me.

    Would you describe it more as a comedy or drama?

    It’s a classic dramady. we take our cases seriously. We’re dealing with real issues on the show — medical marijuana, testing for gender in sports. We’re trying to make it as topical as possible, but of course there’s a lot of bedhopping and backstabbing.

    How’d you go about making it real? Did you visit law firms?

    I’d really stayed on the periphery of the legal world, and checked in with a lot of former colleagues and friends who are partners now. In addition I got in touch with a lot of people in their 20s and 30s. Everyone seemed to say the same thing about life as a young associate: you’re overworked and underfed in terms of guidance. You’re constantly overmatched and outgunned. You love the life and career, but constantly feel a bit in over your head.

    You know you’re going to get criticisms from lawyers and others, people saying ‘that’s not at all how it is. We mostly stare at computer screens all day.’ Or, ‘the associates here don’t look like that. They’re sun-deprived and exhausted and don’t get enough exercise.’ How might you respond to such critiques?

    Well, look, it’s television. If you’re doing a drama, of course you’re going to have those criticisms. But our goal is to tap into the spirit of life at a law firm and replicate the feel of what it’s like to be there. You’re really trying to boil it down and condense it. What I really wanted to tap into was the aspirational quality to the associates.

    Is it a British version of The Office or an American version? In other words, is it an optimistic or pessimistic view of life at a law firm?

    That’s a good question. I think it’s fundamentally an optimistic vision of these kids’ lives. It’s salty and soapy and sexy. But for the most part, it’s about lawyers trying to do the right thing. In the pilot, a main character makes a material moral compromise, and we’ll be sniffing through that. There’s a lot of business reality in there, a lot of money-versus-morals types of dilemmas experienced by both the associates and partners. But fundamentally, I think it’s a hopeful vision.

    Any advice to law-firm lawyers looking to move to Hollywood? Or to switch to something else entirely?

    I got really lucky. But if at the end of the day you feel an urge to explore something and can cashflow it, don’t be afraid. My mother told me — and it was the smartest piece of advice I got when thinking about switching careers — to follow my dreams. It sounds like something from such a cheesy graduation speech thing, but I really believe it.

    Best of luck. And thanks for taking the time.

    My pleasure.

    Photo: ABC

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