NYSBA’s Recurring Role on ‘Law & Order’ and New ABC Series ‘For Life’

By Christian Nolan

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For years, on the hit NBC series’ “Law & Order” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” the New York State Bar Association has served as the fictional governing body of the state’s legal profession.

During each of the shows’ 20-plus-year runs, countless characters have been reported to the New York State Bar Association and its disciplinary committee – perhaps much to the dismay of NYSBA members who understand how the process really works in New York.

The state bar is apparently reprising that role, this time on the new ABC series “For Life,” which debuted last month and airs at 10 p.m. on Tuesdays. The show revolves around wrongful conviction, an issue that the real NYSBA has long made a priority.

The show is executive produced by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and is loosely based on Isaac Wright, Jr. who was wrongfully convicted in 1991 on drug charges and handled his own appeal from prison. After his exoneration, he earned his undergraduate degree and graduated from St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami Gardens, Fla. He later passed the New Jersey bar exam where they took nine years to investigate and finally admit him.

Of course, in Hollywood that process goes much faster and far less realistic. Wright’s character in the tv series – named Aaron Wallace and played by actor Nicholas Pinnock – has already earned his law degree from prison, passed the bar in a different state, and then transferred his bar admission to New York. He can appear in court, represent fellow inmate defendants, all while trying to clear his own name.

In one scene, which also appeared in the official trailer used in its ad campaign to promote the show, Wallace is seen proudly looking at the framed certificate hanging on the wall from the New York State Bar Association (see screenshot above).

The certificate reads: “New York State Bar Association hereby certifies that in accordance with the New York State Bar Examination, Aaron Wallace, is a member of this association, which since its founding in 1876, has concerned itself with the development of the law, improvement of the administration of justice, and public education regarding the value and importance of law in everyday life.”

NYSBA has no such certificates. If we did, it may read something like what appears on all our news releases. “Since 1876, NYSBA has helped shape the development of law, educated and informed the legal profession and the public, and championed the rights of New Yorkers through advocacy and guidance in our communities.”

Hey, at least they got the 1876 part right.

In reality, NYSBA is a voluntary membership bar association, and attorneys are not required to belong to NYSBA in order to practice in New York. NYSBA has no statutory or regulatory role relating to the certification or discipline of attorneys in New York state.

In certain other states, state bar associations handle attorney certification and ethics and disciplinary matters. Under New York law, these matters are handled by the New York State Unified Court System and the Office of Court Administration (http://www.courts.state.ny.us/).

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