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How to get on television and stay on television

Seema Iyer

The second part of the title is the trick.  I’ve seen plenty of lawyers come and go.  They tank their first shot on the tube then are never asked back.  TV is a cruel, cruel, world.  Understand that before reading any further.

How to get on television for the first time

I have been a legal analyst on cable news for almost a decade.  I was fortunate to get my first shot during the days of Court TV when there was a need for lawyers to appear on several hours of programming five days a week.  A lawyer I co-counseled a trial with a regular on Court TV who recruited me because they were looking for more females and minorities so – double BOOM.

I understood that my first shot was my only shot.  So many lawyers are complacent about their first appearance, often saying “I’ll do better next time” not realizing that if you don’t knock it out of the park on your first go, there may not be a second.  And more times than not, there isn’t.

Get to the point.  And make it snappy.

If you are a law student reading this, you need to get your degree, pass the bar, and practice a significant amount of law prior to trying to be on camera.  No one will take you seriously without the experience to back up your legal analysis.

However, an option on getting your foot in the door early is through interning in a news room.  Since news is basically a 24-hour operation, you can volunteer a few hours a week that is convenient with your class schedule.  The best part of this route is that you learn production.  Everything is producing – from booking guests, to organizing segments, to writing scripts.  If you want to be on TV, you want to know everything about how the “sausage is made.”

Trust me.  The more you know about what happens behind the scenes, the better you will be on camera.  And you may even discover another interest.

Get a publicist

This is the fastest and easiest way to get on the major cable television networks.  After years of being on TV, I discovered that everyone does this – everyone.  Except me.  I may be the only person I know in the “TV Legal Analyst” world who didn’t.  And it’s one of my proudest achievements.  For me personally, I need to feel like my accomplishments are based on merit.  Buts that’s just me; I am extremely self-righteous.  And judgmental – very judgmental.  But if you can afford it, by all means I am happy to refer you to publicists.

How to make it on your own

If you decide you are not ready to shell out for a publicist, you’re going to have to creative to get your first appearance.  Without a reel or a clip, it’s incredibly difficult to sell yourself.  Here are some steps that may help:

  1. To get a clip – Pitch yourself to an independent digital site to come on as a guest, even a Youtube channel will work – anything to get a clip you can send out to show you are good on camera.
  2. Cold Calling Bookers – Email booking departments of all the cable news networks and local stations (check their websites). In the subject line, put the topic you are pitching, not your name (no one knows you, remember?).
  3. Without a reel/clip – Write an article. There are so many news websites that welcome submissions from lawyers (Huffington Post is terrific).  Then you email the article that lays out your opinion/analysis which in turn could initiate an entire segment based on YOUR article.
  4. Become the subject – You could get your first shot on television for one of your cases. If you get a high-profile case, media will be calling.  A lot of lawyers have become famous this way; however, I am very against discussing an open case with the media.  Period.  You know the dangers of doing so, as well as the potential benefits.  Still, my hard and fast rule is this: Never talk about your cases to the media, just everyone else’s.

Become an expert

Most lawyers have specialties but some are “general practitioners.”  Try to develop an expertise in one or two areas of law.

Former prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys and civil rights lawyers are the most coveted on television, largely because of the news cycle.  But also highly sought are sports lawyers, First Amendment experts and in the case of certain disasters, aviation and maritime lawyers.

My expertise is, broadly speaking, criminal law.  For the sake of the type of cases I handle, I wanted to develop a subspecialty in forensic science, so I completed post-baccalaureate studies in biochemistry.  Additionally I did extensive volunteering that directly benefited my television career; I assisted in autopsies at the medical examiner’s office, worked in a psychiatric hospital ward, and in a psychiatric emergency room.

Therefore, while my specialty remains criminal law, my subspecialties are forensic science/medicine, psychiatric defenses, and mental illness.

Get rid of the umms, likes, you knows, & I means

This is a self-imposed rule of mine.  I believe one cannot speak on television (or on the radio, or in court) how they speak in life.  I am definitely guilty of using all of the above plus the dreaded “literally” in regular conversation.  However, I make grave efforts to polish every single syllable I utter when I’m on any record.

Next time you watch cable news take notice of how some of the most popular anchors, when off prompter, start sentences with “I mean.”  It’s disappointing that many of the highest paid news anchors make zero effort to improve their presentation.

Extraneous words are often fillers to give us time to formulate an answer.  Lose the crutch.  When you are asked a question on tv/radio answer it right away without the, “well….you know…”

Get to the point.  And make it snappy.  The interviewer and producers will immensely appreciate you speaking in succinct soundbites rather than droning on ad nauseam.

Also, unless it’s part of your schtick – lose the accent.  Personally, I cannot stand most American accents.  When you are on national television, you want to relate to the entire audience rather than just your tiny provincial pocket of the globe.  (Mine was New Jersey…)

The final must-have

This one is non-negotiable.  Be yourself!  Don’t try to emulate anyone or put on a pseudo-anchor voice.  Be the best version of you.  People, whether they’re on a jury or in an audience, appreciate the authentic.  Be your genuine, splendid, smart self and you will be … camera ready.

For more on becoming an expert,
listen as Seema talks with Nicole Abboud

Seema Iyer Seema Iyer, Esq. is a former prosecutor, criminal defense and civil rights attorney with her own practice in New York City, as well as an attorney for the NYPD. In addition, Seema is a TV Legal Analyst on MSNBC, NBC, FOX, HLN and CNN and the host/producer of The Bollywood Lawyer podcast.