Monday, February 12, 2007

Lessons From Lawyer Movies

I am of the opinion that good fiction frequently contains as much or more truth than non-fiction. For example, the practice of law looks very different from the inside but those differences are seldom discussed with outsiders. The classic lawyer movies that we are all familiar with often mean entirely different things to a cynical practicing lawyer than they do to a “civilian.” Here are some examples:

Every aspiring lawyer has seen To Kill a Mockingbird at least twenty times. There are few of us who cannot recite key lines of the dialogue from memory. The famous words, “Stand up Miss Jean, your father is passing” motivated hundreds of idealistic young people to become civil rights attorneys and that one line states the predominant theme of the movie, a man of conscience nobly struggling to right the wrongs of his flawed generation. But, viewed pragmatically from inside the profession, this beautifully told, tragic, southern tale holds an entirely different and darker lesson. In the end, while Atticus Finch did the only thing any man of conscience could do and did it as well as it could be done under the circumstances, his client was still convicted. And, his client was just as dead after being shot by a prison guard while trying to escape as he would have been had the lynch mob been allowed to take him. As a matter fact, in the 1930’s South, Finch’s black client was dead the moment the lying white girl accused him of rape. His actual guilt or innocence was irrelevant. So, to the cynical lawyer, the real lesson of To Kill a Mockingbird is that some verdicts are inevitable just because of who the parties are and where the case is being heard.

The last point is shored up by another great movie of the same era, “Compulsion.” Compulsion is based upon the Leopold and Loeb case of the 1920’s. The Orson Wells character is based upon Clarence Darrow, the most famous lawyer of the era. Wells is hired by the wealthy parents of his clients because he is a famous orator and a master at manipulating juries. The case looks bleak. The boys have already confessed to the killing. Wells takes the case but at trial, after carefully watching the jury’s reaction to the prosecution’s opening remarks, abruptly enters a guilty plea instead of presenting any evidence to the jury. The parents are stunned and voice grave doubts about his abilities. They had assumed that their money and influence would buy their sons an acquittal despite the fact that they had brutally murdered an innocent child and then arrogantly confessed to it before the District Attorney and reporters.

In the next scene, Wells tries to explain that an innocent verdict was impossible and in his opinion the jury would have handed down the death penalty. Consequently, he entered the guilty to plea to remove the jury from the equation and plead his client’s case for mitigation directly to the judge who was more likely to be tolerant of his client’s sexual deviancy. The defendants deserved the death penalty but Well’s strategy works and they receive life sentences instead. It is a great victory. Saving the lives of two homosexual thrill killers in the 1920’s was one of the greatest feats of lawyering ever accomplished. To the legal outsider, the theme of the movie is plain, a dying legal genius struggling desperately to preserve the lives of his youthful clients even as his own inexorably slips away, through his struggle winning years of precious life for his clients that he cannot secure for himself. But, in the final scene, the clients berate Wells and show no gratitude for the miracle he has accomplished. To the cynical lawyer, Compulsion teaches three things, first, that some verdicts are inevitable not only because of who the clients are and where the case is being heard but also and more importantly because of what the clients have already said or done. Second, some if not many clients will be inherently ungrateful, even if you spare their lives. Third, it teaches that success in court is highly relative no matter what the clients or anyone else thinks about it and even a bitter pill like a life sentence can be a great victory.

The theme of client ingratitude appears again in one of the best lawyer movies of all time, Anatomy of a Murder. Country lawyer Jimmy Stewart secures an acquittal for a Korean war veteran who kills his wife’s alleged rapist in a fit of rage. The theme is plain, a bright country lawyer and an aging disbarred drunk can overcome the awesome power of the state, especially when backed up by a bright, wise-cracking secretary and a lean, minimalist jazz score that borders on the brilliant. But, to the practicing lawyer, the real lesson comes in the final scene. Stewart and his partner drive out to the trailer park that was the scene of the crime to have his just acquitted client sign a promissory note for the legal fees that are still due. When they arrive, it is apparent that the just freed client went straight from the courthouse to his house-trailer, hitched it up and fled the jurisdiction, in the process stiffing Stewart of the $3000.00 he still owed him. The irony is exquisite. The client leaves a note pinned to a tree telling Stewart that he suddenly had an “irresistible influence” to flee without paying him, the same defense that Stewart had used to save his life! So, to the cynical lawyer, the lesson here is that some clients are inherently ungrateful no matter what the outcome of the case and their perceived value of legal services rendered will diminish exponentially in proportion to their distance from a jail cell.

Perhaps the best lawyer movie of the past twenty years is “A Civil Action.” Based upon a true story, it tells the gripping tale of a tragic, prolonged and complicated toxic tort case. This is a dark film. The protagonist is shown with all of his warts and the tone is cynical from the beginning. But, the movie does a wonderful job of showing just how difficult it is to litigate against a large corporation with unlimited funds and friends in high places. The case takes nearly ten years to complete and by the time the eight million dollar settlement is reached, it is not nearly enough to save the now deeply indebted law firm or the lead attorney. The lessons here are tough. First, the cynical lawyer should have realized instantly that no matter how horrible his clients situation and how sympathetic their plight, complex litigation is a money pit for all concerned and the deeper pockets usually win. Second, the cynical lawyer should have known that with deep pockets comes deep influence, the kind that no practicing lawyer dares talk about but is always present and almost impossible to overcome. Third, the cynical lawyer should have known that nobility of cause and purity of intention is no guarantee of success. Litigation is ultimately about money not justice and every case has a value beyond which neither judge nor jury will usually pass. Even if you ultimately win, if you forget this and spend more money than your case is worth pursuing justice, someone is going to have to take up the slack, usually the lawyer.

Each of these movies is a fictionalization of historical fact. To Kill a Mockingbird was based upon Harper Lee’s observations of the infamous Scottsboro Boys case. Comparison of historical accounts of the Scottsboro case and others like it show that Lee’s treatment of the plight black people in southern courts in the 1930’s was dead on. Compulsion presents a more complicated and ambiguous situation. Portions of the transcripts of the Leopold and Loeb trial are available online. While I did not find the actual words or similar ones referred to above in the transcripts, I did find psychiatrist’s testimony indicating a life-long pattern of ingratitude and untruthfulness in one of the accused. And, while Leopold treats Darrow very kindly in his book, Life Plus Ninety Nine Years , he also admits to the general truthfulness of the movie presentation. I have followed the blog comments of one of Oklahoma’s Indigent Defense System Death Penalty Team lawyers for several years now. Even here, in Oklahoma circa 2007, this expert litigator counts it a pretty good day’s work if his client does not receive the death penalty. A Civil Action took place in modern times. Jan Schlictman, the lead attorney is still alive and practicing. The facts of his life bear out the truth of the tale. He openly admits that he was broke and suicidal at the end of the case. Unspoken but apparent is the fact that Slichtman could have probably saved his law firm by simply consulting the actuarial-like tables that every corporate counsel uses to determine the financial value in a particular jurisdiction of every imaginable injury from a severed fingertip to burning to death in a commercial plane crash.

So, are the lessons from these classic movies valid? I think so but my opinion is just that and nothing more. However, “A Civil Action” is now required reading at over fifty law schools, To Kill a Mockingbird is usually on the suggested reading list for first year law students and VHS or DVD copies of it and Compulsion are staples in every law school library in the nation. It is obvious then that the information has been presented. The problem is that too many people, clients and attorneys alike, refuse to interpret it properly.



Blogger Jacqui said...

This was very interesting. I'm a new JD, looking for some law movies to inspire me to keep sending out resumes. Ran across your blog. I think it will help me to notice the risks that lawyers encounter as I watch them. Thank you

9:59 PM  
Blogger desert blondie said...

I'm an Oklahoman as well. Created my list of great legal movies inspired by American Film Institute's recent release of their Top Ten Courtroom Dramas list. Take a look ... ... videos, photos, enjoy!

1:37 AM  

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