Review – How to Get Away with Murder

Matthew Howe (2L)

“How to Get Away with Murder” follows the cutthroat criminal law professor Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) leading a class of cutthroat 1Ls through the cutthroat process of the cutthroat criminal justice system. After having just lived through this experience, I was ready for some catharsis, and the thought of impressionable youngsters middle-class adults aged 18-49 being presented with a completely normal and not at all ridiculous depiction of law school was also very appealing. So I decided to watch the premiere. I was not disappointed.

We open with a flash-forward: five law students in a dark forest are arguing about how best to dispose of a dead body. One of them quotes from The Commonwealth v DeLoach for the important and oft-forgotten legal principle that the finding of a murder weapon usually makes it easier to establish how the victim was murdered. Good thing that girl did her readings. Actually, with that level of insight, she probably read the treatise. The others nod approvingly, obviously grateful that she’s in their study group.

We then flashback to the first day at Middleton Law School, where students wait anxiously for Professor Keating to arrive. One student admits “she’s a ball-buster, sure, but I spent the summer interning for Chief Justice Roberts.” His summer before 1L that is. This raised several concerns: 1) Is this guy completely full of shit? 2) If not, how did he end up at Middleton Law School in Philly? And 3) Thank god he’s a fictional character because I’m bitterly jealous of enough people’s résumés as it is.

Almost everyone is in a full-suit for their first day of class. As we did. Everyone guffaws when they learn that a non-suited student was initially placed on the wait-list before being accepted. As we would.

Professor Keating begins her lecture. We learn that she will not be teaching her students how to “theorize” about criminal law but rather how to practice it, in a courtroom, like a real lawyer. No books? The “real world”? Maybe this is how those hippies at Osgoode do it…but for a U of T student, this is all very unsettling. They then begin their first “case study”: The Aspirin Assassin. In a style that strays radically far from the IRAC method, the class focuses almost entirely on discussing alternate theories of the crime and ways in which the witnesses might be discredited. The only vaguely legal lesson comes when Professor Keating asks what the mens rea of the case is (Answer? To Kill!!).

But wait…this isn’t a “case study” at all, it’s actually an ongoing murder trial being led by Keating, who is now openly discussing her client’s trial strategy with about 100 1Ls on their first day of law school. What’s more, the student who proposes the best defense theory will be offered a job at Ms. Keating’s law firm (as if law students needed a further incentive to propose random hypotheticals in class). The students are also encouraged to stalk witnesses, sleep with witnesses, and come up with other creative ways to illegally obtain evidence (not to mention skip property AND torts) – all for a coveted spot at Prof. Keating’s firm. This of course is all very familiar to anyone who has gone through 1L. As one un-ironic ascot-wearing, scotch-sipping student remarks: “this place is a dog-fight, 24/7, and only the big dogs get the bone.” This show is clearly a window into our collective souls.

We then come to the most fantastic plot device ever: an “immunity idol” (which is, of course, a golden statuette of Lady Justice) presented to the most terrible person smartest student, allowing them to join the firm, but also get out of any upcoming exam. [Maybe if U of T supplemented their accommodations policy with something similar, people would stop whining]. The idol is an especially important resource at Middleton because at this point no one is doing any readings, attending any classes, or spending any waking moment on anything other than this case. Where is their work-life balance? Why isn’t their Assistant Dean of Students offering them yoga classes, smoothies, and life-lessons for yuppies? Maybe we’ll find out next week.

Then a bunch of stuff happens. Prof. Keating gets her client off. The immunity idol is awarded to a student who traded sex for damaging information about a witness. And five paper-thin “main” characters are awarded spots at Keating’s firm. All in all, this show’s a delight to watch (for Viola Davis ALONE). I’ll be tuning in next week for some cutthroat, suspenseful, and definitely not next-level-crazy legal drama. I’d encourage you to do the same.