Opinion: Daily Journal

New telling of Perry Mason’s tale makes case against licensing burdens

HBO probably never expected one of its high-profile dramas to deliver a message about overly burdensome occupational licensing.

But there it was Sunday night, playing a role in the latest episode of “Perry Mason.”

It would be easy for the licensing message to get lost as viewers ponder plot twists and character development. That would be a shame.

The message of breaking down unnecessary barriers to employment is important. Policymakers in North Carolina and across the country ought to consider the issue — especially in today’s uncertain economic circumstances.

Before moving forward, I’ll offer a spoiler alert. Those of you who are waiting to binge-watch the HBO show might not appreciate all the revelations this column provides. For that, I apologize. I promise to limit plot points to those that are absolutely necessary.

Whether you’ve seen the new series or not, readers of a certain age will know the name “Perry Mason.” Some have read the original Erle Stanley Gardner novels. Others watched the long-running network TV program starring Raymond Burr.

Burr’s Perry Mason offered the picture of a prominent, high-dollar defense attorney with a fancy office, tailored suits, and a budget big enough for extensive private investigations. Burr played Mason as a card-carrying member of the legal elite.

In the latest version, Matthew Rhys portrays Mason as an ill-tempered, foul-mouthed, broken-down World War I veteran struggling to find his way in Depression-era Los Angeles. Far from being a lawyer, this Perry Mason earns his paltry pay by doing mostly small-scale investigative chores. He works for an aging defense attorney with a dwindling client base. Mason is clearly smart, and he knows some law, but his profession differs little from that of “bum.”

At a key point in the season’s plot-driving case, Mason’s boss dies. Their client, the chief suspect, is likely to end up with legal representation from a shady court-appointed lawyer. Even worse, that new lawyer maintains overly close ties to the chief prosecutor.

Then the dead attorney’s assistant comes up with a plan. Convince the client that Mason has been serving an extended apprenticeship in the law office. If he passes the upcoming bar exam, he will take over the case in time for the trial.

The client agrees. Coaching from an ambitious deputy district attorney helps Mason prepare for his legal test. Near the end of the latest episode, we see Mason taking his oath as a newly minted lawyer.

As farfetched as the plot might sound for the world as it existed 90 years ago, it would be impossible for the plan to proceed in today’s environment in most states. Without a degree from an accredited law school, Mason would not even have the opportunity to take the bar exam.

No matter how much knowledge he had gained working in a law office. No matter how much time he had spent studying law on his own. No matter how quickly his fertile mind had been able to pick up the profession’s nuances.

In other words, today’s rules would prevent Perry Mason from becoming Perry Mason.

Other developments in the HBO series are likely to raise more questions about the necessity of legal credentials.

First, the assistant who concocts the plan for Mason to become a lawyer is Della Street, known by fans of the old TV series as Mason’s faithful assistant. It’s clear this time around that Della is intelligent and knowledgeable about details of court proceedings. She would have been at least as strong a candidate as Mason himself to take over the case.

One suspects she will spend the rest of this show doing more than just filing her new boss’s paperwork and taking dictation. A talented, experienced Della will prove more worthwhile to Mason than a typical third-year law class.

In another interesting twist, the deputy D.A. who essentially gives Mason the answers to the bar exam is named Hamilton Berger. We learn from their introductory meeting that Berger has all the Ivy League legal credentials Mason lacks.

Fans of the earlier TV show will remember Mason beating Berger in the courtroom week after week. If that pattern holds true in the reboot, viewers will face continued reminders that a smart, dedicated lawyer with more experience than formal training can hold his own against an opponent with multiple diplomas on the wall.

I can hear some of you saying, “Wait a minute. This is all fiction. Perry Mason isn’t real. This is not how court proceedings work.”

This is true. It’s also true that qualified people worked as lawyers for thousands of years before policymakers decided that the job required a particular college degree. Critics such as George Leef of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal have spent years questioning the merits of mandating law degrees for prospective attorneys.

There’s no telling how many real-life Perry Masons get derailed from their career paths because they can’t afford to devote seven years or more to formal higher education.

One suspects that HBO is not thinking about the future of law licensing requirements as it promotes the Perry Mason story in a new way to a new audience. That’s fine. Like Mason’s grasp of the law, viewers might pick up this fascinating occupational licensing message on their own.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.