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ACEDS Interview: Josh Gilliland Explains Why Geeks Love the Law

Thursday, August 4, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jason Krause
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Nerd culture has been taking over mainstream culture for a long time. Four of the ten highest grossing movies this year are based on comic books and four of the five most valuable companies in the world are tech companies. Pokémon Go is the new outdoor activity of choice for millions of people.

But in many ways, the law is also its own nerd subculture. It’s a community of like-minded people who understand the jargon and enjoy following every new twist and turn in the law.

One person who has found a place at the intersection of pop culture and the law is Joshua Gilliland, author of the bowtielaw blog and For the past two years, he has been presenting legal panels at conferences and festivals like Comic-Con on topics such as “Star Trek: Where Lawyers Boldly Go,” and “Jimmy Olson asks the Tough Questions on Kryptonian Justice.”  Panelists have included California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, and Paul Grewal, who recently stepped down as a magistrate judge in San Jose federal court to join social network Facebook as deputy general counsel.

We talked to Josh about why lawyers geek out on Sci-Fi and why geeks dig the law. 

PHOTO: Comic Con panelists Neel Chatterjee, Paul Grewal, Josh Gilliland, Megan Hitchcock, and Jessica Mederson (Courtesy of Josh Gilliland) 

When did you first go and get involved in Comic-Con? Were you an attendee first and then became a speaker?

Nope. My first time attending and presenting were last year. The genesis of this was after Jessica Mederson and I started the Legal Geeks. I noticed that a lot of the people I interacted with on Twitter spoke at Comic-Con and other conventions. I thought that seemed like a really fun thing to do. So I did a few of the smaller ones to get started. For example, I did San Diego Comic Fest where I discussed the Constitutional issues in the Agents of Shield. I wasn’t sure how it would go, but people showed up. We had a decent room the first time out. I talked about legal issues that you find in the show- issues like Fourth Amendment searches, NSA hacking, and national security debates that you find in a show like that. I found it was a way to talk about what the law in a framework that people understand because they are fans of the show. So when Daisy hacked into the NSA, I can explain to the audience that she would have violated laws X, Y, and Z. Another episode had drones being used in law enforcement, so we can talk about the legal issues in that context.

How did you settle on Agents of Shield?

The show had been on for a while, but most importantly, it was a weekly show that has gross Constitutional violations almost every episode, so that’s just a gift for an attorney. It’s a chance to say, ‘wow, they didn’t even bother reading her Miranda rights, that’s not right.’

In popular culture it seems like the law an impediment. Lawyers only get in the way of the action, right? Or is there a role for lawyers?

It depends. If you consider Daredevil, and especially season one and into season two, it’s about the practice of law and the system of justice working. In that one you have Daredevil, who is a superhero at night and a lawyer by day, and at the end, it’s about seeing the bad guy arrested. Matt Murdock’s journey in season one was not to kill the bad guy Wilson Fisk, but to make sure he’s arrested.

So there are shows that do a good job of that. To a degree, Supergirl got into that this season. Our second panel at Comic-Con discussed the fact that at first the fictional DEO is holding aliens in clear prison cells. Never mind how do the prisoners eat or go to the bathroom, but they are treated as non-human without rights or due process. But the fictional government agency that is not supposed to do law enforcement starts arresting people and putting them into these cells, the characters have wrestle with those issues and work for a solution.

These aren’t abstract debates, either. We live in a society of laws and people care about these issues. We have horrible problems right now with people who are shot on the street or police officers killed while doing their jobs. These are horrifying issues for everyone because we want the system to work. When you see someone wrongly shot by the police, or police officers being assassinated, that is a nightmare. People are looking for ways to deal with these issues.

So who is your audience? Is it comic book fans who have an interest in the law, or lawyers who have an interest in comics?  

It’s a cross section. At the Big Wow Comic Fest in San Jose, I presented on the Agents of Shield, Agent Carter, and Captain America. Most of the people in the room were comic book and Sci-Fi fans. But there were a couple of lawyers and a police officer, but 95 percent were normal folks who wanted to hear about the law. At Comic-Con last year, we had Judge Paul Grewal on the panel, and 300 people attended the panel and a bunch were lawyers. Fast forward to this year, and we had 400 people fill the room, and at one point I asked for a show of hands as to who was an attorney and 100 to 150 people raised their hands.

One person came up afterward, an effervescent, smiling woman wearing a Darth Vader sundress, who told me she was a Judge in Compton. Her chambers are decorated with superhero schwag and my friend Megan who presented with us has practiced with her. I don’t know if it was just because Justice Cuellar was on the panel, but we got a lot of folks like that who practice law and the numbers seem to be growing.

What is the value of having someone like Paul Grewal explain Klingon Law?

It’s a way of knowing who we are and our value system. It’s funny because Paul Grewal commented on Facebook on one of the photos from the Comic-Con that the world would be a better place if more judges liked Star Trek. A lot of people my age grew up watching that show and became attorney.  Many of our generation are now judges. Justice Cuellar talked about being a little boy in Mexico and watching Star Trek at his grandmother’s house on a little black and white TV set and falling in love with this show’s optimistic view of the future. And look what’s he’s accomplished in his life.

Is there a sense that the law is its own nerd culture?

Definitely. Look at the popularity of Hamilton, which is about the founding of America. We’re a nation of laws. When you see it intersect with a TV show or comics, it’s a chance for people to see how it works. A lot of people are terrified of attorneys so we have given people a way to understand the law and how it works.

So these are not just hypotheticals or case studies, but I get the sense we’re dealing with issue could be real legal debates in the near future.

Right. For example, you have to look at how Maritime law applies in space. On one panel, Justice Cuellar and Grewal had an interesting back and forth about the Star Trek episode A Measure of a Man. It’s about artificial intelligence and equal protection. It was fascinating to see them go back and forth and Cuellar acknowledged that this will be an issue someday. And I think it was Grewal- it’s hard to say because I was geeking out watching them so that I didn’t take notes- but he asked if you wipe an operating system to upgrade the operating system, could the artificial intelligence object to being upgraded? 

I would love to watch that exchange again. It was a beautiful and cool thing to watch brilliant legal minds wrestle with a complex topic. And people really seem to get inspired by the topics as well. Last year we had a Star Wars panel on Tatooine law. The questions we got were just fantastic. One little boy in the audience asked Judge Grewal a question about manufacturer’s liability for droids that kill people, similar to the way the tobacco industry has been held liable. This kid must have been six or seven, but it was a really interesting and thoughtful question.

Back in February, when we did the mock trial of the Winter Soldier, we had Judge Grewal presiding and six law students from across the country who tried the case. We had two psychologists who were expert witnesses and they produced a ten-page expert report on the insanity defense. It was easily more detailed than any law student could hope to get in any exercise in law school.

What’s the next step? Can you get showrunners or writers of these shows onto a panel?

That would be neat if we could do that. You know, I did a lot of posts about Daredevil season one, and the show runner, Steven DeKnight, found us and retweeted two of the posts. That was a huge compliment and is gratifying when that happens. Getting to interact with people on shows that I love is neat.

Of course, sometimes I have to be critical too. I did a post on Daredevil Season two because they got the trial of the Punisher wrong. For one thing, I explained that you don’t have protesters in the courtroom. That would be grounds for a mistrial. But then that gave me a chance to write how I would have done the questioning of Frank Castle.

How does this work help build a legal career?

When you think about it, the high-profile-est panel I ever moderated was at Comic-Con. The chances of me arguing a case at the California Supreme Court are slim to none. But I have met lawyers and judges at the highest levels because of this. And it’s a great discussion point with clients. And from following up with the law students who helped at the mock trials, it has clearly helped them get jobs. It is that it is just fun to talk to people who are as nerdy as I am. I found out some of the attorneys I met at the Con go to the same comic store as I do. We can now do lawyer meet ups at the comic store.  So there are lots of cool things happening.


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