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Word on the Street: Lawyering Up, Aided by 'NYPD Blue' -- WSJ

24 Jun 2017 6:32 am
By Ben Zimmer 

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the US print edition of The Wall Street Journal (June 24, 2017).

As special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election continued to widen in recent days, extending to President Donald Trump's firing of former FBI Director James Comey, some people in Mr. Trump's orbit were reported to be "lawyering up."

In addition to Mr. Trump himself, Vice President Mike Pence and even Mr. Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen have recently retained their own lawyers.

Democrats did not let this go unnoticed. "When lawyers are lawyering up, that means that something is not right," Rep. Ruben Gallego (D., Ariz.) told CNN.

"Lawyering up" entered the popular lexicon back in the mid-1990s, thanks to the hit ABC police procedural, "NYPD Blue," which aired from 1993 to 2005. Starting in the show's second season, the cops often spoke of suspects "lawyering up" -- typically in ominous terms, when detectives became worried that they weren't going to extract the hoped-for confession.

On an episode broadcast on Nov. 22, 1994, Bobby Simone (played by Jimmy Smits) warned of one suspect, "He would lawyer up in 10 seconds." The following week, Detective Simone said of another character, "His father threatened to lawyer him up."

When I checked with "NYPD Blue" co-creator Steven Bochco, he was quick to give credit for the use of the phrase to Bill Clark, who drew on his experience as a New York Police Department detective for more than two decades to ensure that the show remained authentic.

Reached by phone, Mr. Clark said that by the second season, he had retired from the NYPD so that he could work full-time on the show as a writer and producer, entrusted by Mr. Bochco and his collaborator David Milch to craft stories from his own experience. Mr. Clark infused the scripts with police lingo like "lawyering up," "reaching out" (for contacting someone who could help in a case) and "skell" (for a small-time perp).

These bits of cop-speak became so associated with the show that TV critic Alan Sepinwall created a drinking game out of them, published on his website. Whenever anyone used "lawyer up," for instance, viewers had to take a drink. "A lot of the show's slang tended to filter into the vernacular," said Mr. Sepinwall, who wrote for many years for the Star-Ledger newspaper in Newark, N.J.

As for "lawyering up," Mr. Clark said it was a "sensitive expression" for police detectives intent on eliciting confessions. "If a guy lawyered up, the ballgame's over as far as the interrogation goes," he said.

At least two legal scholars have critiqued the show's depiction of "lawyering up." In a 1998 article for the journal Green Bag, law professors Susan Bandes and Jack Beerman said "NYPD Blue" gave the consistent impression that "lawyering up is the worst thing a suspect can do."

Nowadays the phrase applies to the hiring of attorneys more generally. Mr. Clark said he was happy that his introduction of "lawyering up" to the show helped popularize the expression. Where will all the White House lawyering up end? Tune in tomorrow.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 24, 2017 02:32 ET (06:32 GMT)

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