Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Asking For Legal Help On Social Networks and Online Forums Is A Terrible Idea

In this post, I'm going to write down a few thoughts I've had over the years about the topic of seeking legal advice online from non-lawyers.

But first, I'll start with a brief and concise summary of the entire post, in case people are fans of TLDR:

Do not ask people online for help with your legal problems. Hire a lawyer. The End.

I will follow that with a piece of free advice - if you have started a discussion online about a legal problem of yours, delete it immediately. Or contact a moderator of the forum and have it deleted immediately. Remove from view all trace of that discussion. (If you just read that and you're skeptical, please read on. Then come back to this paragraph)

Full disclosure. I'm not a lawyer. I've never studied law. Nor do I want to. However, I have discussed with MANY people of knowledge the topics covered in this blog post. Feel free to ignore it if you'd like. I'd be curios to hear how that pans out for you :D

With that out of the way, let's dig into a little bit deeper. First, how does this usually come up? I've seen the following scenario unfold dozens, if not hundreds of times over the years: Someone is in some kind of pickle, and they're not a lawyer, but they want to find out what their legal options are. So they go online to their favorite discussion forum, message board, or social media outlet and ask their online friends what they think. I've seen things like the following asked in the past:

  • I think my wife is cheating and I want to know what my options are for a divorce.
  • My neighbors house is full of pot smokers, I'd like to know what my rights are.
  • My boyfriend broke into my house last night and stole all my stuff. Should I call the cops?
  • I got ripped off in the mail to the tune of 2,000 bucks. Should I sue them?
  • My girlfriend called the cops on me last night claiming I had beaten her. What do?
  • I was sexually harassed at work, but I'm not sure if I should tell HR.
  • My kid got suspended from school, and I'm thinking of suing. What's the best way to proceed.
  • I got caught downloading music illegally. Should I worry?
  • Trying to kick my dead-beat boyfriend out of the apartment, but he won't leave. What do?
  • Someone is slandering me online. How can I get them to stop?
  • Got screwed in an online transaction, I want to sue!
  • I just got a C&D from Disney. Should I comply?
  • A contract I signed tricked me into relinquishing some ownership rights I did not want to. Is it binding?
  • Got a DUI last night. Should I fight it?
  • I'm thinking of kicking some dudes ass!!
  • Homeless dude is squatting in my rental property and I can't get him to leave. Thinking of hiring some friends to physically remove him.
  • I got caught on a traffic cam running a red light. Will that go on my record?
  • I'm trying to copyright an idea. How do I do it?
  • My landlord is trying to evict us, but he's totally off his rocker, right?
  • Someone stole my idea for this great product! How do I go about suing them?

And there's like a million more just like this. It goes on and on and on.

I'll start by saying this, and it's a bit of a rant. So if you don't like rants, skip ahead to the section that has my list of reasons not to discuss legal matters with someone who isn't a lawyer. Talking about your legal problems online is utter madness, and complete lunacy. The only good that will possibly come from it is that you may get a temporary feeling of happiness or relief. Someone might say something reassuring. But that's it. Committing anything to writing, especially on the internet, will only serve to ruin any kind of legal claim you might have. Talking about it to people who are strangers, who have differing agendas than yours, who may in fact have malicious agendas, is a terrible idea. For those of you who have been on the internet (or alive) for more than ten minutes, surely you already know that anything you say about someone online will get back to them almost immediately, right? This is also the case when discussing legal matters.

Whenever you hear yourself saying "I want legal advice" your next step is to hire a lawyer. If you cannot afford a lawyer, it is my belief that your next step is to stay quiet. Posting about it online will ONLY serve to hurt you. Let me be quite clear: NO GOOD WILL COME OF IT. Find a lawyer who specializes in the area of the law that you are interested in, research them, and if they meet the criteria you set forth for your target lawyer, schedule an appointment with them and go in to discuss your case.

Here's the list I mentioned earlier. This is a brief, and not complete list of GREAT reasons not to talk about your legal troubles online.

  • Anything you say can and WILL be used against you in a court of law - it's the backbone of your Miranda rights, and the wording of it is very precise. If something comes out of your mouth, it WILL be used against you. Which is one reason it always fascinates me when people discuss legal matters with anyone other than their lawyer or their spouse. (Spouse's cannot be compelled to testify against you.) Saying NOTHING online is your best option, because ANYTHING you say CAN and WILL be used against you. The one thing worse that saying stuff is writing stuff. A good lawyer could call into questions someone's recollection of what you said, or maybe they misheard you because it was a noisy street or something. But if you commit something to writing, and it's on the internet, it's compelling.
  • There's a reason lawyers are not cheap, nor free - It's because their services are valuable. They can save you money, keep you out of jail, get you compensation for your suffering, or defend you from someone who is trying to unjustly hinder your ability to pursue happiness. Just like you wouldn't expect a doctor to perform surgery on you for free, or an auto mechanic to fix your car for free, why would you think a lawyer would give you his services for free? If you're thinking "well I can't afford a lawyer, and maybe I have a friend who is a lawyer and is willing to help me for free" then please refer to the other points in this list. Hopefully they will convince you that this line of thinking is madness.
  • Not a lawyer at all - "I'm no lawyer but..." is usually the way many people respond to requests for legal assistance or advice. If someone's not a lawyer, you don't want their legal advice. If he's not a lawyer, it means he doesn't know about the law. Which is the topic you are seeking expertise in. See where I'm going with this?? If you wanted advice on the cancer your grandmother has, and a gardener offered up his thoughts, would you give it much credence? NO! You want to hear from a doctor who actually knows something about cancer! What if your Audi broke down, and you need it fixed. Would you take advice from a guy who does language translations for a living? You're probably saying "Well, what if that language translation guy fixes audi's as a hobby? Or has a ton of experience fixing Audi's??" and to that I respond again: read the rest of the bullet points.
  • A terrible lawyer - The person who responds to your post or inquiry might actually be a terrible lawyer, and could be giving you bad advice. Maybe they got disbarred, never passed the bar, or got thrown out of their profession for practicing the law poorly, or maliciously. Without having a way to investigate their bona fides, or check references, the person giving you advice may very well be the worst lawyer in the world.
  • An uninformed lawyer - Laws vary from state to state, country to country, county to county. Let's say you do happen to have a friend who is a lawyer, they are legit, and they are good intentioned. But that does not mean in any way they are knowledgeable of the laws that are applicable to you and your case. Because of the wide variance in laws from place to place, a lawyer that is not intimately familiar with the stuff on the books in your area can easily end up doing more damage than good. Law is also very specialized, and broken down into a near infinite variety of different fields. While someone may be a fantastic Intellectual Property lawyer and they even operate in your county, this does not mean they know anything about bankruptcy laws, or home lending.
  • A troll lawyer - What would stop someone who was not a lawyer AT ALL from telling you they are indeed a lawyer, and then proceeding to give you bad legal advice. Maliciously giving you bad legal advice, mind you. As before, without a way to check on the credentials of a potential legal representative, you have no idea what their motives are. Could just be some dude who wants to mess with your life. Sadly, there are many people like that out there. The troll lawyer could even be the very person you who has caused you to seek legal advice. Online existence grants us such a great deal of anonymity, there's really very little (if any) way to determine that the person giving you legal advice online is actually who they claim to be.
  • Your enemies can read it - Newflash: everything you post online is public record. Forever. And can be accessed by anyone. You may not think this is the case, because after all your favorite online forum is password protected, right? Or you've got your facebook settings set up so that only your friends can see your posts, right? Even if that were true, and even if there weren't third party bots scouring every nook and cranny of the internet to store away your typed words, an attorney could simply subpoena your data, assuming the case needed it. Emails can be subpoenaed in some cases, as can private messages over facebook or forums. If an opposing lawyer is committed enough, anything you have typed will be discovered. Even deleted emails.
  • You're writing your confession - Typically when someone is online looking for legal advice, they of course find it necessary to outline the problem they are trying to get advice on. After all, how are they going to get legal advice if they don't describe their problem? This is the equivalent of writing and signing your confession. Recall that not everyone understands the law properly. In fact, it's this very reason that you're looking for a lawyer, right? That being said, I promise you that one of the worst things you can possibly do is talk about the thing you've done (or that you've witnessed, were a part of, were thinking of doing, had done to you, etc) online. Because that will be used against you. My favorite one was the guy who said "Oh no, I just got a letter from comcast because they caught me downloading an episode of illegally. Should I torch my computer? Tell them to screw off? Just hope it blows over?" The person just admitted to committing a crime. On Facebook. If anyone took to pursuing legal action against this guy and it went to trial, they now have a documented confession of him saying he committed a crime AND he was soliciting friends for ways to avoid legal ramifications. See how much that sucks?
  • Client/Attorney Privilege - One of the key pillars of the legal system is this. It means that your attorney can't be compelled to testify against you, nor is ANYTHING you tell him or her usable against you. They are under a sacred oath to keep everything you tell them a secret. For example, if a mass murderer went to his lawyer and said "just FYI, I did kill all those people. But I'll pay you whatever you want to keep me out of jail" the plaintiff could NOT make the defending lawyer disclose that conversation. As someone looking for legal help, you WANT THIS. You want a lawyer who will refuse to discuss your case and the details of it with anyone else. Ok, now let's take a minute to think this through. If one of the cornerstones of the American legal system is Client/Attorney privilege, (meaning that everything you discuss about your case is kept secret) why on earth would you think that discussing legal matters in a public forum, where anyone in the world can overhear you, is a good idea? Spoiler alert: it's not.
  • The law is not always obvious - An interesting thing about the law is that it's not always obvious. Things that might make total sense to you, that would be intuitively obvious as "the law" are not always so. Yes, it might suck, and yes, it might seem unfair, but it is the way it is. It may seem TOTALLY obvious to you that someone has broken the law and they should be put in jail, but that doesn't mean that's how the law works. And I'm not even talking about it going to trial by jury. I mean that what you believe to be the truth about the written law may in fact not be the truth. If you believe that a particular law sucks or is unfair, one of the great things about America is that you have it within your power to set the wheels of change in motion and get that law you think so stupid changed. Call your congressman, call a senator, write a letter to the White House. Start a movement! Collect signatures, etc. I don't really have any examples to cite here, as any law I talk about may very well be different in your area. But the point is, though something might FEEL like it's against the law to you, or that it's a violation in some way, it may not be. The opposite is also true. Something that you think is totally legit might be illegal. And by discussing it online, you're committing it to the public record. Don't let your opinions or beliefs of the law, or the opinions of others, dictate your legal course of action. Because there's a chance you've got it wrong.
  • Legal Language is not easy to understand to a lay person - I hear all the time that legal speak is confusing. That it's difficult to understand, and overly wordy. What's ironic is that the opposite is what is actually true. The reason legal writings seem so strange to those of us who speak English colloquially is because it's written in such a way as to eliminate as much ambiguity as possible. It's trying to make it so that the written word of the law is crystal clear to any trained practitioner of the law who is reading it. If you're trying to understand it yourself, you're on a fool's errand. Don't get me wrong, I'm not claiming it IS unambiguous. I'm claiming that the reason legal speak is the way it is is so that ambiguity can be minimized. And this is another reason you need to hire someone who is a trained practitioner of the law: because they are going to have a better chance of understanding the written law than you might.
That's about the long and the short of it. I personally think these are all pretty compelling reasons not to discuss your legal problems online, but instead to hire a lawyer. Not only are there a ton of things that can hurt you by discussing it online, but there's a reason that lawyers are not free.

Thanks for reading! If you have any other items you think should be added to the list, please post them below. I'd also love to hear about any things you've seen online where someone is asking for legal advice. What kind of things did they ask for? Did they disclose information about their case which would be valuable to the other side? Do tell!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Writing My First Television Pilot.

Inspiration comes from strange places. I had an idea in my head for a television pilot that I'm hopeful I will one day produce. It's a mash-up of ideas that I think has some real legs, and that I think audiences would really enjoy. It involves a fresh take on a well traveled franchise, and is combined with an well developed format. I had my idea for the plot in my head, and had already sketched out characters. The thing really driving the development of the show was resources I had at hand. From the experiences I gained writing and producing Loadout:Going In Hot, I decided I wanted to write a script whose action and location were based almost entirely on assets I believed were available, and low cost. Similarly, I wanted to write it for characters that already existed, and could be portrayed by actors I have already worked with. The primary goal of this script was to tell a story for a budget that I knew I could acquire.

The plot came together quickly, as did the characters. Since I am basing the characters in this pilot on already existing characters, all I really had to do was modify them to suit my purposes. It proved to be a fun and interesting experience, as it felt like I had a guiding hand in expanding those characters. Characters that I already love, care for, and have gone on adventures with. Good stuff.

There were some holes in my character lineup that needed to be filled. I needed two new people, supporting characters, to do some of the b-story plot development. You know, the kind of people who are in the room when someone mentions a character that is familiar to people in the universe, but not to the audience? That way, one of those characters can say "Hey, who is this so-and-so person they're talking about?" and the other person can so "oh, that's the guy who does the thing to the other thing" and then the audience is back on board. In coming up with something as simple as the names for those two characters, I ended up falling down a rabbit hole.

I had an idea for a punny set of last names for these two characters, which I came up with pretty quickly. I thought it would give the primary cast a good foothold for interaction with them, as they would always be easy to make fun of. But I REALLY liked the names I came up with. So much so that I immediately wanted to give them their own series, because I very quickly had a bunch of great ideas for character development for that man and woman. My attention completely shifted from writing character descriptions for this mash-up pilot into writing a pilot for these two characters. I removed them from the original universe in which the pilot was set to take place, and created a brand new idea that I thought would be really fun, very interesting, and was also structured so that it could easily run as a multi-year series, should a network show any interest in it.

And so, my SECOND television series idea was born. This one puts a supernatural twist on a popular style of story telling. (I'm being ambiguous here on purpose, by the way. The details aren't important at this point) This story came together so quickly. Writing the background and mythology for this show was so much fun, as there is all kinds of crazy stuff going on. It gave me the opportunity to be really creative, within a framework that seems very cookie cutter and devoid of originality.

I sat down and wrote out a very flimsy outline. I knew what point A looked like, and I knew what point B looked like, but I didn't really have much of an idea of what all the stuff looked like in between the two, or where the connective tissue would go. I just wanted to get started right away and write some dialog between these two characters who I had already gotten to know in my mind.

I started with a blank page and it just poured straight out of my brain onto the page. Act 1 of the story just flew out of me, with barely a glance at my outline. The characters really took on a life of their own, and I'd never experienced anything like that. I could see in my head each scene so clearly, and could see how each character would react, how they would speak, how they would interact with the other characters and the world around them.

And just like when I'm watching a TV show or movie, surprises happened. There were plot developments that just occurred naturally as I was writing. I was stuck for an idea in the latter half of act 1. There's a scene where our protagonists find something. When I sat down to write this, I had no idea what it was they were going to find. I was typing up the scene where the two were in the car, driving to a location. The one where the "thing" was to be found. The dialog was coming along nicely, and I was enjoying watching these two characters grow. I then got to the scene where they arrived at the place where they find the "thing". I still had no idea what the "thing" was going to be. They get there. They get out of the car. They walk towards a place. They arrive at the place. And at the same time my characters lay eyes upon the place where the thing is, THAT is when the idea came to me for what that thing should be.

It was surreal. It all had a very "Neverending Story" vibe to it!!! And that's very much how the entire process went for me. The pilot is very much a journey of discovery for my two protagonists, who have been thrown into a situation that they both need to work through to understand. Time and time again, my characters would discover something at the same instant I did. Or they would makes sense of something confusing at the exact same moment I did. I'd be writing dialog where they would be saying "I need to figure this out" or something like that, and then right after that, as the other character goes to open their mouth to lay out the obvious, THEN it becomes clear to me what the answer is.

I wrote about fifty pages like that. Barely an outline, no real thought put into the story beats. Just a beginning and an end, and a good understanding of my characters.

I re-read it. And I re-read it again. I was already a big fan of these characters, and really enjoyed the way they interacted. But there were of course things missing from my story. I had yet to wrap up the main plot line, and there were a bunch of things that my characters knew that they had no way of knowing. I needed to go backwards and fill in those gaps.

It was an immense pleasure thinking through how to spackle closed holes in the story. It allowed me to introduce new characters that had a very specific purpose, and discover new locations that served them. And the script grew. What I had originally envisioned as a 42 minute pilot now grew into a target of 84 minutes. I realized that the story was too big to tell in a 42 minute opener, because it's actually two stories. It's not only something of an origin story, but it's also a quest story. Of course, the origin drives the quest, but they are two very different stories. Because of the supernatural component of the origin story, much time and effort was put into establishing the rules of this universe. It's unlike anything I've ever read or seen, and thus needs some explaining. The beauty of the larger format is that it allows me the flexibility to really explore these characters and their struggle without moving too quickly, cutting corners, or leaving too much explanation for future episodes. As it stands now, my story falls short of 84 minutes, which is a true blessing, as I still have so much story I want to tell, and so many components of the "quest" story that need to be fleshed out.

I guess the punch line to this whole post is that inspiration often comes from strange locations. What started out as an exercise in developing b-story support characters spiraled into a two hour pilot that practically wrote itself. And from that, I think the conclusion is one that has been repeated to me again and again over the years. Momentum is the best kind of inspiration. Once you start moving, staying in motion is easy. It's the getting off the couch that's the hard part. So if you have a story that you're struggling with, or some idea that you're having trouble getting off the ground, just sit down and write SOMETHING. Create SOMETHING. Getting your brain up and running, and your fingers pounding on the keyboard is often the best medicine for a lack of ideas. You might not end up writing the script you wanted to write, but you just may end up writing something. And hopefully, that something will be something great.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Loadout: Going In Hot, End of Year Thoughts

Utter Madness.

When I write my autobiography ( which will probably turn out to be little more than a collection of blog posts and social media rants ) that will be the title of the chapter that summarizes the second half of 2014. It's been utter madness. But of course, in a good kind of way.

It was roughly in June that I started marching a path with Vincent Talenti, the very talented director who has brought to life the Fallout universe in the popular "Fallout: Nuka Break" series. He and I have been working together closely and feverishly for a while now, and just a few days ago released our latest and biggest collaboration "Loadout: Going In Hot"

I think it's safe to say that this is one of the top five things I am most proud of in my life. It's a super fun, quirky little sci-fi piece that I think performs at a feature film level in many ways. Vince directed it, I wrote it, and also served as Executive Producer. This film could not have been made without the help of a number of incredibly dedicated professionals, all of which I owe a great debt of gratitude. It also gave me the chance to work with some fantastic actors, and acquire so many great new memories. On a personal level, one of the most amazing elements was seeing my words and thoughts brought to life. When I first sat down in front of the keyboard to write the script for Loadout, I had a head full of ideas, some great story points from Vince, and a lot of enthusiasm. I'm by no means a writer by trade, nor have I ever really had any plans to become one. But opportunity presented itself, and it seemed foolish to let that opportunity pass me by.

I think one of the most profound take-aways for me from the whole experience is just how much time it takes to make a project like this happen. So many people worked so hard for so long to produce eight minutes of content. It really blows my mind. It's staggering how much effort goes into getting those pictures on screen, and how many talented people work together to make it look so good. It really made me appreciate just how much work goes into studio movies.

All of this took place in the midst of producing a number of episodes of "Prime Time" for Machinima, which has also proven to be a wonderful, gratifying, and creatively satisfying experience. Working with the folks at Machinima has introduced me to so many great ideas and personalities, ones which I would never have been exposed to had Vince and I not joined forces earlier this year. I'm extremely proud of the work we have done with them and for them, and am thrilled at the quality of the work that Wayside Creations is producing. My tiny successes at writing have inspired me to try other things too. Little ideas that I've had kicking around in my head for years now. Nothing terribly ground breaking or new, but just little stories that I thought would be fun to tell. With the encouragement of the gang at Wayside and a few other key people, I've found that I'm really enjoying the writing process, and am creating shows, feature films and shorts that *I*would love to watch. Even if they never get made, I'm thrilled to see the words on the screen. The knowledge that I've completed a task I set before myself is extremely gratifying.

As 2014 comes to a close, I'm sitting down to write another draft of Fallout: Nuka Break - Tales From The Wasteland, and could not be more stoked to do so. Knowing that I will contribute to this universe that fans have embraced so much is a huge honor for me. And I don't even consider it daunting. Because I know that the team at Wayside Creations have got my back, and will support me along the way, and help to turn this into another project that we will all be proud of.