Writing his own Ticket



Tuesday, Jan 10, 2012

Lecturer Jonathan Shapiro finds success in Hollywood

-By Maria Iacobo

Jonathan Shapiro tried to avoid becoming a writer. He postponed it with graduate work at Harvard, a Rhodes scholarship, a law degree from Berkeley and a legal career. But these distractions only provided Shapiro with more fodder for storylines, scripts and new television series.

Jonathan Shapiro
 Jonathan Shapiro, USC Law lecturer

“I really wanted to be a writer, but the general consensus at the Shapiro household was, ‘who makes a living as a writer?’” recalls Shapiro of his career forecast after college.

Today, Shapiro is an adjunct professor at USC Law teaching Federal Criminal Law. He also is a writer-producer of the new legal drama "The Firm," based on the bestselling novel by John Grisham.

Shapiro previously was the co-executive producer for the NBC-TV drama “Life,” executive producer of last year's "The Paul Reiser Show," and penned dozens of scripts for television dramas “The Practice” and “Boston Legal.” He created and ran the legal dramas “Justice” and “Just Legal.”

While at Boalt, Shapiro worked full-time as a staff reporter for San Francisco’s daily legal paper; by day he’d cover a criminal trial only to attend criminal procedure class later in the day.

“It was a wonderful way to learn the law, and how to think critically about it,” he says.

He jettisoned plans to continue reporting upon graduation after taking a trial advocacy class. Shapiro says he was “hooked.” Offered a position with the criminal division of the U.S. Justice Department, he tried felony cases in Washington, D.C., for two years before transferring to the Los Angeles U.S. Attorney’s office in time to work on the federal prosecution in the Rodney King case.

“I gave up all writing,” he says.

Shapiro’s caseload over the next eight years reads like a season on your favorite legal drama: narcotics cases, bank robberies, police beatings, foreign espionage and a stint as U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno’s special assistant for the congressional hearings into the 1993 Waco Siege.

“Particularly for a young attorney, the best job in the world is to be an assistant U.S. attorney or a deputy public defender,” says Shapiro.

But the lure to write eventually proved irresistible, and Shapiro sold his very first script to “The Practice” in 2000. It was based on his first trial. He says it was “surreal” to have actors read his words. And, he found his two previous careers provided a boost to his writing.

“Being a lawyer was great training because you have to make your point and make it fast,” he says. “But, writing for a newspaper was also good because you have to have an exciting lead and keep the audience engaged.”

The past eight years have had Shapiro writing, producing and teaching criminal law. One of his joys is staying in touch with former students now working as trial lawyers. One of the reasons he continues to teach is to encourage students to look at these careers. The numbers of federal trials have gone down and he fears that trying cases is “a shrinking practice.”

Another reason reflects Shapiro’s own exciting and challenging life as a lawyer.

“I try to get my students to look at their law degree as a ticket to go anywhere and to do anything that interests them. Don’t follow a career that others have chosen for you because it feels safe. Your law degree should propel you into adventures.”