Legally Speaking: Lights � Cameras � Lawyers

By John G. Browning | Oct 17, 2007

One of the recurring questions I seem to get at most social functions concerns my TV viewing habits – do I watch shows like "Boston Legal," "Law and Order," and the like?

The truth is, just like many of my doctor friends aren't overly fond of medical dramas, I'm not a big fan of shows set against the backdrop of the legal profession. It's not because of the improbable cases – trust me, truth is stranger than fiction. It's not because in real life, lawsuits are not miraculously resolved in thirty minutes (minus commercials, of course). It's not even because of the temptation to nitpick over glaring errors – inadmissible evidence getting in, objections not being made, etc. I'm actually a bigger fan of how movies portray lawyers.

I don't mean some of the more obvious, classic portrayals of lawyers at their best and noblest. Whether it's Spencer Tracy in "Inherit the Wind," Jimmy Stewart in "Anatomy of a Murder," or Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird," older films tend to depict lawyers as heroic crusaders for justice.

In fact, several years ago, when the American Film Institute announced its rankings of the greatest heroes and villains in cinematic history, the number one hero was none other than Atticus Finch. Imagine that – in our society's favorite medium over the last 100 years, the greatest hero is a lawyer!

As noble and endearing a portrait as Gregory Peck's portrayal of Atticus Finch may be, I prefer my celluloid barristers to be more flawed, more human if you will. Just as society in general embraces the underdog, I like my movie lawyers to walk into the courtroom with feet of clay.

From Richard Gere's portrayal of cynical, egotistical criminal defense attorney Martin Vail in "Primal Fear" to Denzel Washington's homophobic Joe Miller in "Philadelphia," lawyers who are touched and changed by the process of advocating for another hold more appeal for me.

In "A Civil Action," greedy plaintiffs' attorney Jan Schlichtmann (played by John Travolta) lives by the cold hard calculus of a practice in which injured young people are worth more than older plaintiffs and crippled clients needing a lifetime of medical care hold a higher value than those who have died. As Schlichtmann's fervent belief in the righteousness of his case against the polluting companies grows, we see his professional life spiral out of control as he bankrupts his firm and himself in his quixotic quest.

Similarly, in "A Few Good Men," the slick plea bargain artist played by Tom Cruise grows as a human being when he defends the court martial of two Marines who might actually be innocent. And who can't help but root for Matt Damon's fumbling neophyte lawyer in "The Rainmaker" when he gazes at his leukemia-stricken client and realizes that his case against the impersonal, corrupt insurance company really is a matter of life and death?

Personally, there are two portrayals of such flawed heroes that stand out. The first is Paul Newman's depiction of boozing, ambulance-chasing Frank Gavin in "The Verdict." A former rising star in the legal firmament, the alcoholic Gavin has been reduced to showing up at funerals handing out his card to widows. Given a chance at an easy payday in a medical malpractice lawsuit, Gavin passes it up after he visits his comatose client in the hospital and realizes that he is the only one who can speak for her.

In his courtroom struggle against a large law firm, their well-respected doctor defendants (who literally wrote the book on proper anesthesia), a hospital owned by the Catholic Church, and a biased judge, Gavin finds redemption. In the face of disappearing witnesses and crucial evidence ruled inadmissible, the attorney tells the jury "You are the law. Not some book, not some lawyers, not a marble statue or the trappings of the court" – and the jury listens.

The second portrayal of a lawyer at his most fragile comes in the recently released "Michael Clayton." George Clooney plays the titular attorney, a "fixer" at the monolithic law firm of Kenner, Bach (any resemblance to the large firm Jenner & Block is, I'm sure, purely coincidental). A divorced gambling addict financially and emotionally devastated from bankrolling his brother's failed restaurant, Clayton's value to the firm consists of making their clients' sundry problems go away.

The firm may represent corporate America, but Clayton tends to the skeletons in the clients' closets; from a hit and run to "shoplifting housewives and bent Congressmen," Clayton keeps private indiscretions from becoming public embarrassments using his skill, savvy, and network of connections.

When a multibillion dollar class action lawsuit against one of Kenner, Bach's biggest clients is endangered by the off-his-medication antics of the firm's top litigator (played by Tom Wilkinson), it is Clayton the fixer who is dispatched to rein him in so that the defense isn't compromised. But faced with the prospect of a damning internal memorandum going public, the big conglomerate and its general counsel decide that both the litigator and Clayton need to be silenced – permanently.

Having discovered that the firm's agri-giant client may have poisoned thousands of people and is now willing to kill to keep that a secret, Clayton must decide whether to be bought off or take a stand. Clooney's portrayal of the conflicted Michael Clayton, a man battling his own demons, is a rich, multilayered one.

One of the central themes of these films, a theme that resonates with what lawyers do every day, is the quest for the truth. But it is a truth that – in an era of spin doctors and sound bites – can be both elusive and malleable.

The tagline for the "Michael Clayton' movie echoes this when it declares "The truth can be adjusted." In "The Verdict," Frank Gavin is offered a settlement by Bishop Brophy. As he catches the bishop's drift, Gavin asks "And no one will ever know the truth?" The bishop responds, "What is the truth?"

I suppose that sums up what I admire most about Hollywood's depiction of lawyers. Even at our most conflicted, and even when the truth isn't pretty or popular, we are at our best when seeking it out and championing it.

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