The Genuine Article

Tara Shiroff


[LAS VEGAS] Since the early days of grainy, black-and-white images and rabbit-ear antennas, television crime dramas have alternately startled, confounded and captivated generations of small-screen audiences. And perhaps no series in the genre’s history has been more effective in glamorizing the science of catching bad guys than “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Strange though it may seem, the state-of-the-art technology employed by characters Dr. Gil Grissom and Catherine Willows in their pursuit of justice has made the formally esoteric and, occasionally, macabre practice of gathering crime scene evidence seem … well, downright cool.

For Tara (Hamilton) Shiroff ’02, a legal consultant for “CSI: Las Vegas,” that perception has its benefits — and its drawbacks. “I enjoy researching the questions the show writers have about the correlations between developing an interesting script, and following the guidelines of the law.” She pauses, acutely aware of the paradox her career path has provided. “As a lawyer, I notice that jurors want to know where the DNA evidence is, and all the cool stuff they see on TV shows that are brought into court cases. It’s known as the ‘CSI Effect,’ and it tends to create an unreasonable expectation on the value of forensic evidence in some cases.”

For the past six years, Shiroff has adroitly balanced the demands of a successful career in civil litigation with her work on “CSI,” a gig that the Las Vegas native adamantly declares “is really not as glamorous as it sounds. I’m not on the set chatting with the actors. It’s more research than anything.” Ah yes, but it’s intriguing research — like determining whether or not casino chips discovered in concrete can be cashed in 50 years after their issuing (yes), or how many women in a house constitutes a brothel (depends on the county in which it’s located).

And it all began with a casual afternoon visit to her law school campus. Back in 2006, Shiroff was just a year removed from receiving her JD from UNLV’s William S. Boyd School of Law. While perusing an alumni newsletter, she came across an ad for an on-campus presentation discussing the CSI effect, which would be led by two of the show’s researchers. While she found the presentation informative, what really grabbed her attention was the fact that the show’s researchers, David Berman and John Wellner, were also supporting cast members.

Reserved by nature, Shiroff suppressed an initial urge to head for the exit and struck up a conversation with Berman and Wellner. Turns out the chat also served as a mini audition. “They asked me what I did, then told me that they really needed a Nevada attorney who could advise them on the consistency and the authenticity of their scripts, and asked me if that would be something I’d be interested in. I figured I’d never hear from them, but I got a call the next day.” Since then, she’s spoken with one or both of them several times a week. The experience has been incredibly rewarding on a variety of levels. “They ask me everything under the sun in terms of making sure things are authentic, and it’s a challenge to keep up with all the topics the writers want to cover.”

Truth be told, Shiroff would’ve been perfectly content focusing her energies on her responsibilities with law firm Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, and if the folks at “CSI” happened to call, she’d have been more than happy to help. However, in 2009, Berman and Wellner — who had started their own Los Angeles-based legal research firm — were singing Shiroff’s praises to a group of executives at the Lifetime Network who were developing a legal comedy-drama called, “Drop Dead Diva.” The story centered on a plus-sized female lawyer whose body becomes inhabited by the soul of a recently deceased fashion model, and a whole host of hijinks ensue. Sound like a stretch? Shiroff and her husband thought so. At least at first.

“I was reading the initial script with my husband, and he was telling me how he thought it would never fly, how it was a crazy premise,” she recalls, laughing. “But the characters are very relatable, and what do you know? It’s become one of the most successful shows the network has ever produced.” Now into its fourth season, “Drop Dead Diva” and its life-affirming plot lines have struck a chord with a broad viewership, and Shiroff, who serves as the show’s lead legal consultant, feels its success is attributable to a universal axiom that she embraced during her undergraduate years as a political science major at USD.

“It really comes down to feeling comfortable in your own skin, and that’s one of my treasured memories of USD — just how comfortable and happy I was while I was there,” she says. Shiroff graduated summa cum laude with a degree in political science, but perhaps even more importantly, she walked away from Alcalá Park with a heightened understanding of what it takes to be successful in law — and in life.

“I would absolutely credit Del Dickson, my faculty advisor at the time, for some great advice he gave me about pursuing a career in law. He told me that networking is absolutely critical to the opportunities you create for yourself, and that you need to be aware of when to make those connections.”

And right there, Tara Shiroff’s journey from USD classrooms to Hollywood courtrooms is perfectly encapsulated: “Who knows? If I didn’t take that advice to heart, I may not have gone up to the podium and introduced myself six years ago.” — Mike Sauer

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