The Financial Life of Ally McBeal
When you think of the most famous attorneys – it’s a lot of men. Even famous fictional lawyers tend to be men – Perry Mason, Atticus Finch, Bob Loblaw. But there are also a lot of great female attorneys – real and fictional. And it’s easy to forget that. So this is just a fun series to remind us of some of them, with an added personal finance twist And we’ll start with my favorite of all time.
Why I Love Ally McBeal, the Show
I love Ally McBeal – the show and the character. I’ve watched the entire series (well, not the last season) several times. And no, it’s not realistic. Litigators don’t get cases the day of trial. The number of injunctions sought and granted on the show is laughable. All the attorneys would have been disbarred for ethics violations.
And yet the show was inspirational in many aspects. All the women are rich, smart, beautiful, and powerful who got alone and were not competitive (or at least weren’t as competitive as they really should have been). Even the wealthy biting client Ling Woo turns out to be a graduate of Cornell Law, a successful entrepreneur, a hairstylist, and a fashion designer with a heart of gold. #Asians
The show idealized interracial relationships, and I’m an idealist. Everyone said Ling’s name correctly even though as an Asian person in a predominantly white firm, I was mistaken for every Asian person that had ever worked in the firm. Sometimes that’s what we want to see. This ragtag group of coworkers bonded together despite their differences – racial, gendered, awkwardness.
The show tackled all sorts of current conundrums like sexual harassment, transgender relations, date rape, workplace romance, the struggle between wanting a career and family, gender equality, and the role of beauty and religion in one’s employment and in relationships. It’s somehow still modern in its problems even after decades.
Overall, it was a show about loneliness. It was about people who felt like either their jobs or their relationships would solve their problems (and thus, all the cases were about fighting for jobs or relationships). And the show somehow made loneliness and the legal practice magical and fun.
Why I Love Ally McBeal, the Character
Ally is totally relatable. Yes, she is clumsy. Yes, her decision to wear short skirts to court was narcissistic. She can be needlessly aggressive. But she’s a young lawyer. All of this is completely realistic for that demographic.
Ally knows she’s a hypocrite to feminism. Or at least she’s a hypocrite to what she’s told that feminism is or should be. Even though she’s a successful, smart, and rich, she can’t help but be drawn to conventional societal norms like a husband and family. And she constantly berates herself for this even as she knows that’s what she wants.
Love. Couple hood. Partnerships. The idea that when people come together, they stay together. I have to take that with me when I’m going to bed at night, even if I’m going to bed alone. That’s a McBealism.
Ally is smart. She’s hard-working. She’s funny and fun (I feel like this is one of the rarer things to see for a leading female character). She’s vulnerable and unapologetic. She has girlfriends and guy friends. She is loyal. She is, at times, incredibly articulate and wise.
Ally is flawed. And you see her very gradually change for the better – at least the better version of herself. She cares about others slightly more than herself or her career.
But enough about me waxing on about the wonders of Ally McBeal. Let’s talk about her finances!
How Ally McBeal Handles Finances
There is never any talk of student loans but hey, Ally donated an egg during college, which may have given her a hefty chunk of change (I assume no one is donating an egg without some compensation. That stuff is painful). Her father is an attorney, so he may have helped with the payments.
But if Ally McBeal went to law school in 1994 (the show aired in 1997), tuition payments were $15,000/year and BigLaw salaries were $85,000/year in 1997. Even if Ally had total debt of $45,000 for the three years, it would have been manageable to pay off on that salary. These days, total law school tuition is more than a year’s salary but was only half in the olden days.
Ally lives with her roommate, Renee, in a modest apartment in downtown Boston. Ally’s main expenses are her therapist, her wardrobe, and eating out. She takes sculpting and kickboxing classes. In some episodes it appears she owns a car (there is a notable episode involving a car wash), but her main mode of transportation appears to be walking.
People criticize the cast of Friends for being unrealistic in terms of their finances, but Ally’s life seems perfectly reasonable. She has a stable job with a high salary, low housing and transportation costs, and low entertainment costs. She doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time spending money – shopping or vacationing.
Ally’s Unequal Financial Relationships
Very rarely do finances come up in the show. For the most part, that’s not that surprising considering finances aren’t a “polite” conversation topic, and because most of the characters appear to make very high salaries and have no dependents.
Ally does seem to bribe her secretary, Elaine, often with money, promising raises for a variety of favors.
Ally never talks about money with her roommate, Renee, who likely has a very different set of financial circumstances as a prosecutor.
In the early part of the series, Ally only seriously dates high salary men – doctors and lawyers. She does go on a series of blind dates and is attracted to a full range of men including a model, high school student. But in the last season, she seriously dates a handy man, perhaps showing that financial equality is not that important to her.
Ally seems to be the type of person who would keep her money saved and liquid just in case she needed to be whisked off to … Chicago or Detroit or New York to follow the man of her dreams. She’s a romantic and perhaps somewhat practical.
Toward the end of the show, we see Ally making some big financial moves. She becomes a partner in her firm, but realizes the firm is losing money (surprise surprise considering how many times the firm is sued by its own associates. Ally herself gets sued a bunch of times during the show’s run but it doesn’t seem to cost her out of pocket because the firm represents her, arguably gratis). So this may have been a net loss, but usually lawyers have to pay in to become partner, and Ally likely has the money to do so.
Ally then impulsively buys a fixer-upper house. She also finds out she has a daughter and the show ends when she ditches her career in Boston to become a mom in New York.
If you only knew how much money I’ve spent at therapists trying to figure out who is that guy and now it turned out that the guy is a 10-year-old girl and she’s home
If there’s a lesson to be learned here (and that’s a big “if”), it’s that Ally, despite her ditziness, seems to be fully in charge of her finances. She’s no Carrie Bradshaw living in a house of her shoes, or Rachel Green, who needs to crowdsource funds to go on a ski trip. When big-ticket financial opportunities appear for her, money is not an object. And it shouldn’t be considering how much she likely makes and how low key her lifestyle is.
Ally McBeal is not the face of feminism but she’s a woman who is smart and independent. When the audience sees her walk off for her new life, we all know that she might never find a husband, but she’s thoroughly capable of taking care of herself, at least financially.