By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent
In the latest episode of a long and successful career, Jack O’Malley has gone from enforcing the law to practicing it to helping the practice exist authentically in a fictionalized world.
O’Malley, a retired 2nd District Appellate Court justice, is a consultant for the upcoming television show “Chicago Justice.” The show is the latest in a series of Chicago-based shows that exist in the same world, including “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago P.D.” and “Chicago Med.”
“Chicago Justice” follows the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office as it seeks to resolve cases. The first episode will air March 1 before moving to its regular 8 p.m. Sunday night time slot on March 5. O’Malley is uniquely equipped for the consulting gig: In addition to being a retired justice and a former Chicago police officer and tactical investigator, he served as the Cook County state’s attorney from 1990 to 1996.
He scored the NBC job as a result of a connection he made nearly four decades ago while in law school — a story he likes to tell his students as a visiting professor of law for Northern Illinois University College of Law.
“I tell my students that the relationships they form even before their legal careers get started can help them many years later,” O’Malley said. “I tell them that this is a guy I met the first day of law school, and in my retirement years, he presented me with a new line of work that’s really fun.”
O’Malley talks with us about his career and his future with “Chicago Justice.”
CL: When did you want to become a lawyer?
O’Malley: I was working for the Chicago Police Department and going to college [at Loyola University Chicago]. When my younger brother Kevin went to law school, I started thinking about it; even at that point, I didn’t think I wanted to actually be a lawyer — I figured a law degree would be just as beneficial as a master’s degree in something else if I wanted to advance in police work. But when I finished law school, there were [lawyer] jobs that paid lots of money, so I went with them.
CL: How did you get involved in television consultation?
O’Malley: I was in the police department for five or so years, and I quit so I could go to Cornell [University Law School] in upstate Ithaca [N.Y.] to get away from the distraction of friends. After a year, I went back to the police department and finished my law degree at University of Chicago Law School. But in the one year I spent in New York, I met a guy named Michael Chernuchin, and we became good friends. We both graduated law school in 1981, but neither of us were interested in becoming lawyers. He practiced law for a couple years, and he wanted to be a writer so he sold a couple scripts to a new show called “Law and Order.” We stayed in touch, and he called me when the first show showing his credits as a writer came on.
He’s been with Dick Wolf Productions as an executive producer of several shows, and he’s the showrunner of “Chicago Justice.” We followed each other’s careers after all these years and he asked me if I would be a consultant.
CL: How does the consultant workload look?
O’Malley: Back in July, I met with all the writers and producers in California. We stayed in touch looking at script ideas and filming started in Chicago at the end of August. I gave them a bit of advice on set, but most of my work is done with writers. Once they kick into gear with production, they move fast. I spend probably four or five days a week looking at scripts, but the work is split between my teaching and mediation work … it’s not a full-time job by any means. In addition to having taught for about five years at NIU law school, this semester, I’m teaching a course at the Chicago Police Academy through DePaul law school for officers that have bachelor’s degrees seeking a non-law degree. I’m teaching three days a week.
CL: What previous job of yours has best prepared you for consulting on “Chicago Justice”?
O’Malley: If I had to pick one, it would be when I was a Cook County state’s attorney. What’s different about this show in comparison to the “Law & Order” shows is the focus: Those begin with the crime and police investigation, while “Chicago Justice” focuses more on the district attorney’s office. When Mike first approached me, he asked me if the investigation side of things [in Chicago] is handled not primarily by Chicago police but by Cook County state’s attorney investigators, so this show is more about the prosecutor’s office utilizing their own investigators to conduct investigations.
CL: Have you had to make big script changes to keep with authenticity?
O’Malley: Some stuff is outlandish and dramatic just because that’s the nature of their business, but primarily what I do is try and help them make sure they don’t make simple mistakes. For example, in Chicago, we don’t use the word “perp,” which is in all those New York shows. It’s a silly little thing, but it’s not realistic. Yesterday I was reading a script, and a police officer is talking about arresting someone for heroin and the police officer makes a reference to the officer himself being “in the bag.” And I’m wondering what the hell that even means; it turns out it’s a very common phrase in New York, meaning being in uniform versus plainclothes. I’d never heard it before, and no one would understand it in Chicago.
You don’t want someone on the show not saying “Devon Avenue” like we do. One script had a woman complaining that her boyfriend wouldn’t take her to the Jersey Shore. I said, “Look this is Chicago, we don’t yearn for the Jersey Shore.” Procedurally, they have technical advisers for all of their shows, and there are a lot of similarities among big-city processes, but we are committed to getting things accurate.
CL: What are some of the best depictions of law you’ve seen on screen?
O’Malley: “My Cousin Vinny.” It’s funny as all get-out and there’s some excellent cross-examination in the movie, so it’s even funnier for someone who is a lawyer. They made a point of getting a lot of things accurate. As far as procedural shows, I’ve always found the older “Law & Order” shows interesting.
CL: Do you get star-struck working with celebrities?
O’Malley: One of the first things I did last summer in California was have lunch with Carl Weathers [whose character on the show is state’s attorney]. When I first heard he would be playing in the role of a job I used to hold, I thought it was really cool because I’ve always admired his work. And there’s Philip Winchester and Monica Barbaro, who play assistant state’s attorneys. And Jon Seda, one of the stars of “Chicago P.D.,” and Joelle Carter from “Justified,” which I was a big fan of — though it was a far-fetched story about a quick draw with the cowboy hat. Based on the things I read in the media, I thought all of the actors would be difficult to deal with, but they’re all really nice people. None of them are prima donnas, and they all want to get things right.