Legally Speaking: D'oh! What 'The Simpsons' teaches us about the law

John G. Browning Aug. 15, 2007, 11:13am

Like most of America (or so it seemed) I recently went to see "The Simpsons" movie. As I laughed along with everybody else at the antics of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and the rest of Springfield, I couldn't help but reflect on the mirror that this popular animated show has held up to society over the years.

Believe it or not, there have been college courses taught on "The Simpsons", and at least one academic textbook devoted to the show's philosophical insights. So, I suppose it's not too out of line to suggest that "The Simpsons" can shed some light on how America views the legal system in general, and lawyers in particular.

Legal problems abound in Springfield, particularly for the Simpson clan.

Young Bart has been a plaintiff in a fraudulent personal injury case inspired by the Billy Wilder comedy classic "The Fortune Cookie" ("Bart Gets Hit By a Car"); made a claim over tainted food ("Round Springfield"); and has been a criminal defendant ("Bart the Murderer").

Marge Simpson, towering blue hair and all, has brought a sexual harassment lawsuit ("Marge Gets a Job"); has been on trial for shoplifting ("Marge in Chains"); and has had to sue to regain custody of Bart ("Burns' Heir"). Homer has brought a consumer misrepresentation claim ("New Kid on the Block"); and has had to go to court with the Devil after breaching a Faustian contract to sell his soul ("Treehouse of Horror IV").

Even the movie begins with a nod to legal troubles - Bart's traditional writing punishment on the blackboard consists of scribbling "I will not illegally download this movie", over and over again.

During virtually all of these travails, the Simpsons are represented by Lionel Hutz, an ambulance-chaser (literally) voiced by the late, great Phil Hartman. Hutz typifies the sleazy lawyer. He exaggerates his academic credentials ("I've attended Harvard, Yale, MIT, Oxford, the Sorbonne, the Louvre").

Hutz also represents the very worst in legal marketing. His office, under the name "I Can't Believe It's a Law Firm", is located in the Springfield Mall, where he also takes in shoe repair. His business cards turn into sponges when put in water ("Ooh, classy," reacts Homer after getting one). His yellow pages ad promises "Out-of-court settlement in 30 minutes or your pizza is FREE".

When soliciting Bart's personal injury case, Hutz tells Homer "You'll be getting more than just a lawyer, Mr. Simpson. You'll also be getting this exquisite faux pearl necklace, a $99 value, as our gift to you."

Hutz's classy approach to marketing his services is equaled only by his unwavering commitment to professional ethics. Undaunted by ethical considerations about giving a client unjustified or unrealistic expectations about the results a lawyer can achieve, at one point Hutz says, "Mr. Simpson, the state bar forbids me from promising you a big cash settlement. But, just between you and me, I promise you a big cash settlement."

Similarly, after Homer is thrown out of an "all you can eat restaurant" and wants to sue, this discussion takes place:

Hutz: Mr. Simpson, this is the most blatant case of fraudulent advertising since my suit against the film "The Never-Ending Story".

Homer: Do you think I have a case?

Hutz: Now, Homer, I don't use the term 'hero' very often. But you are the greatest hero in American history.

Unfortunately, Hutz's courtroom skills leave something to be desired, and he can't live up to this kind of hyperbole. Consider, for example, this exchange:

Hutz: And so, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.
Judge: Hmmm. Mr. Hutz, do you know that you're not wearing any pants?

Hutz: DAAH! I move for a bad court thingy.

Judge: You mean a mistrial?

Hutz: Right! That's why you're the judge and I'm the law-talking guy.

Judge: You mean the lawyer?

Hutz: Right.

Hutz's ability to cross-examine a witness is also suspect, as shown by his attempt to shake the Devil's testimony about the enforceability of the contract in which Homer sold his soul for a donut:

Devil: I simply ask for what is mine.

Hutz: That was a right pretty speech, sir. But I ask you, what is a contract? Webster's defines it as "an agreement under the law which is unbreakable." What is unbreakable? Excuse me, I must use the restroom.

Of course, there could be other reasons for Lionel Hutz's seeming inability to win a case. One could be his level of preparation.

In one episode, Hutz reassures Homer, telling him "Mr. Simpson, don't you worry. I watched 'Matlock' in a bar last night. The sound wasn't on, but I think I got the gist of it."

Another explanation could be Hutz's relationship with the judiciary, something he elaborates on when defending Marge on her shoplifting charge.

Hutz: Uh-oh. We've drawn Judge Snyder.

Marge: Is that bad?

Hutz: Well, he's had it in for me ever since I kinda ran over his dog.

Marge: You did?

Kutz: Well, replace the word "kinda" with the word "repeatedly", and word "dog" with "son".

Yes, for many Americans, the only thing worse than a brush with the law would be one in which they're represented by a lawyer like Lionel Hutz. While his incompetence and ambulance-chasing are exaggerated for comic effect, Lionel Hutz reflects our societal distrust of a profession that seems to be less selective than it once was (although his medical counterpart, Dr. Nick Riviera, casts doctors in a pretty dim light as well).

Hutz also embodies American's discomfort with the excesses of lawyer advertising; while Hutz's marketing ploys are exaggerated, I've seen lawyer ads that come uncomfortably close to the caricatures depicted on "The Simpsons" and programs like "Saturday Night Live".

Nevertheless, I find it healthy for lawyers to be aware of how they're portrayed-no one should take themselves too seriously, and all lawyers should strive to defy the stereotypes inherent in lawyer jokes. In fact, one of the biggest "Simpsons" fans I know happens to be a lawyer-Bill Powers, current president of the University of Texas (and my former law professor), whose office decor even includes a few "Simpsons" action figures.

"Simpsons" creator Matt Groening doesn't sugarcoat his feelings about lawyers. In one episode, when Bart tells Lionel Hutz that he wants to be a lawyer "just like you" when he grows up, Hutz briefly imagines a world without lawyers-a utopian vision in which people of all nationalities hold hands and dance happily around a circle under a rainbow-before shuddering at the thought.

Laugh it up, Mr. Groening, and we lawyers will laugh with you; after all, "The Simpsons" made you a wealthy man, and I'm sure the lawyers who protected your interests and drafted your contracts over the years had something to do with that.

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